Sunday, May 6, 2012

Looking at the Sky

I'd like to teach a class that started with me asking the students, "What do you see when you look at the sky?" There are so many ways the class could develop from there, depending on the answer(s) the students gave.

If they said "blue," we could investigate why the sky is blue, talk about what light is, debate particles vs. waves, investigate the electromagnetic spectrum, study rainbows, Raleigh scattering, sunsets, transparency vs. absorption, sunburns, radio/tv/cell phone signals, and anything else they want to find out from there.

If they said "clouds," we could investigate what clouds are, the water cycle, why and how liquids condense and freeze, why hot air rises and rain falls or doesn't, what lightning and tornadoes and hurricanes are. Maybe then we'd be fascinated by disasters and investigate earthquakes and the structure of the inside of the Earth and other planets. Or maybe we'd decide to look more closely at electricity and build our own charge collectors and study Coulomb's Law and from there move to capacitors and circuits and then wave a compass near a strong current and build a motor.

If they said "birds" or "trees," we could investigate which particular birds or trees or other living things live where we are, how they've adapted to living here, how other living things have adapted to living elsewhere, what living things need in their environment, what we would need if we wanted to export ourselves to another planet, what makes a planet habitable for creatures like the ones around us, the search for other habitable or inhabited planets, the scale of the solar system and the scale of the galaxy, the Drake equation and how to talk about stuff you don't know.

If they said "stars" or "the Moon" or "the Sun," we could jump directly into the structure and behavior of the solar system, what holds it together, how we know what we know about the solar system, maybe we'd build a telescope or maybe we'd look at Hubble photographs with Galaxy Zoo or hunt for craters on the Moon. We would definitely have to keep a Moon journal, argue about whether Pluto and Eris and Ceres and Makemake should be planets or not, talk about eclipses and transits and eclipsing binary stars and searching for extrasolar planets, and wrestle with how light be both a particle and a wave at once while going so awesomely fast that time stands still.

I wouldn't be able to write a content-based final exam for the class before June, but I could write an open-notes, process-based final exam:
  1. Explain the scientific process, using examples from your work this year. 
 I wouldn't be to file a curriculum in August, but I could link each question to the Next Generation Science Standards as it came up, and assess students on their understanding of the questions they chose to investigate. I wouldn't be able to give parents a bullet-ed list of topics at Back to School Night, but we would be publishing the results of students' investigations as we went along, sharing learning directly with parents and the community so that everyone can see what and how we're doing.
What question(s) would you use to start a class?


Anonymous said...

I love this idea. It's a natural inquiry based class with so many different points of access. I also think it might make for a very interesting online class, one that could connect people all over the planet to share and compare the things they are seeing and wondering in the sky above. Might be an awesome P2PU course for one summer...

jsb16 said...

I'm not sure how well it would translate into an online class. The hands-on experimentation, from pinhole cameras to the vanderGraaf generator to local ecological surveys, work best if there's a teacher at hand to guide the inquiry. We can't assume that students will design solid experiments the first time around, or know what to when their experiment doesn't answer the question they thought they were asking.