Astrobites@Anchorage: Thursday Sessions

From left to right: Astrobites authors Susanna Kohler, Lauren Weiss, and Chris Faesi with the Astrobites poster at #aas220.

This is the final update in Astrobites’ endeavor to liveblog AAS!

We’re again very grateful to the AAS council, and in particular Debra Elmegreen and Rick Fienberg, for their support. Thanks also to LOC Travis Rector for providing us with cookies to hand out at the poster! And once again, thanks to all of you who stopped by to say hello at the meeting — we loved getting to talk to all of you.

Links to all the previous posts in this series are below. If you haven’t looked at them recently, check again — they’ve all been updated with more photos from the meeting!

Monday morning sessions

Monday afternoon sessions

Tuesday morning sessions

Tuesday afternoon sessions

Wednesday morning sessions

Wednesday afternoon sessions


4:30pm – AIP Gemant Award: Tycho to Kepler: Four Centuries and More of Astronomy and the Media

Stephen P. Maran is the 2011 winner of the AIP Gement award, “for his extraordinary contributions to the public communication of astrophysics through popular books and articles for broad audiences, his mentorship of science writers, and his dedication to enhancing the dissemination of science news throughout the world.” Dr. Maran spoke about how science communication has changed through the ages, beginning with Tycho, who was his own publicist, and continuing through today, where we have press conferences for science journalists at every AAS meeting.

Some of the more interesting things he discussed were the tools available to people who want to more effectively communicate science (did you know that there is an entire journal dedicated to communicating astronomy to the public?) and some issues in science communication (how does one make a story both popular and accurate? when should you announce premature results, so as to avoid fusses like the superluminal neutrino situation?). Dr. Maran also raised the interesting point that the scientific community seems to be becoming more tolerant of the idea of science communicators — Carl Sagan got a lot of grief for his role in public outreach, but “you don’t hear people knocking Neil deGrasse Tyson”.

Dr. Ed Prather speaks about astronomy education research at #aas220.

3:40pm – Mix One-Part Astronomy Education Research with One-Part General Education Astronomy Course and You Get a Very Potent Science Literacy Transformation Cocktail

Ed Prather certainly wins the prize for the most convoluted talk title. That said, it was refreshing to see a session at AAS on astronomy education. Dr. Prather addressed the perennial question he raises in his teaching workshops: “Are you really teaching if no one is learning? And how do you know anyway?” His point is that, though science professors rely on data in their research, they often don’t do so in their teaching. As a result there is generally no gauge of whether or not students retain any information from classes. Since introductory earth, astronomy, and space science courses are taken by 500,000 students each year and they’re often the last science classes these students — who will become our future teachers, taxpayers, and voters — will ever take, it’s all the more important to ensure they’re learning what the professors are teaching.

Dr. Prather presented research monitoring the students of many such physics and astronomy classes for learning retention, measured by a comparison of a pre- and post-class scores on a standardized test. The research showed that interactive teaching techniques (for example, clicker questions that the students vote on and then discuss with each other; see the Center for Astronomy Education (CAE) website for much more detailed discussion) can create much greater learning retention, but whether or not it does is entirely dependent upon the instructor. Put another way, having the tools does not mean you’re necessarily able to use them effectively.

I could write ad nauseum about Ed’s work and the incredible things he’s done to improve astronomy education, but instead I will give you advice: if you ever have a chance to take a workshop from him (i.e., from the CAE — these are offered in conjunction with every AAS meeting), you should absolutely do it.

 11:40am – Yup’ik Understandings of the Environment: “The World is Changing Following Its People”

Ann Fienup-Riordan gave an interesting overview of how the native Yup’ik people of Alaska are continuing to interact with a changing world. Her talk was based on a decade of work with Yup’ik elders, and focused on the Yup’ik belief that the world changes to reflect the values and behavior of the people in it. She explained that the Yup’ik word “ella” can be defined as  “weather,” “world,” “universe,” and “awareness” depending on the context. This is an interesting demonstration of the Yup’ik understanding that the Universe and awareness are inextricably connected, and their belief that to solve problems such as global warming and resource shortages, we must “correct our fellow humans” by improving the values of the younger generation.

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