Final frontier

Astronomy prof takes his students on an intergalactic journey of learning

As a doctoral student, Steven Rodney was confident in his knowledge of astronomy. But the prospect of teaching the material to students seemed more like a black hole — Rodney didn’t know if he had the right stuff.

“As academics, it’s assumed we can teach even though we’ve had no formal training in pedagogy,” he says. “That’s why I jumped into the deep end early.”

For Rodney, that meant getting involved with the Institute for Scientist and Engineer Educators, which exposed him to different theories of learning and the neuroscience and psychology of how people learn. He quickly put that into practice by teaching an introduction to astronomy course while in graduate school at the University of Hawaii.

“I had a very unusual introduction to teaching and learning that planted the seeds of what I’m doing today,” he says. “It taught me there’s an awful lot to learn about how people learn.”

As an assistant professor of astronomy at Carolina since 2015, Rodney continues to tap into what he’s learned about the science of learning. Using a peer-led team learning approach, he recruits students who already have done well in Astronomy 101 to assist with team activities such as how to make decisions based on scientific learning. It’s a way to make a large class feel smaller, Rodney says, and creates a useful extension of USC’s successful Supplemental Instruction program, which also employs students as peer educators.

“The absolute core of my teaching philosophy is the idea that the one who does the work does the learning,” he says. To that end, Rodney employs frequent clicker questions and mini-discussions in class as well as “snowball” sessions that involve students writing a one-line summary of the last 10 minutes of class, then throwing the wadded-up piece of paper across the room where another student retrieves it and adds a new line to the list. “No one falls asleep in snowball sessions,” Rodney quips.

Using a Center for Teaching Excellence grant, Rodney revamped Astronomy 101 with the help of physics and astronomy department colleague David Tedeschi. Instead of plodding from beginning to end in an astronomy textbook, Rodney’s version of the new course centers around a provocative question — “Are we alone?” — to get students thinking about the search for intelligent alien life in the universe. Many of the same textbook topics are covered but with a focus that makes the material read more like a mystery than, well, a textbook.

“I want undergraduates to learn how to wrestle with complex data — to make informed decisions. That’s a skill they can take with them into other disciplines,” Rodney says. By keeping his students actively engaged in the learning process, they might just take along a bit of astronomy knowledge, as well.

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