Last night, I led a group of 20 or so students up to Mount Laguna Observatory. This is a field trip that is required for all introductory lab students, and a handful from another astronomy class came up as well. It was a stunningly gorgeous night – not too cold, no moon, exquisite seeing. The Milky Way arched across the entire sky, and David and I took turns slewing the telescope and pointing out constellations with the powerful green laser pointer. We had a good look at Albireo (a double star), the Ring Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, M13 (a globular cluster), and finally, Jupiter.
I’ll admit that I’ve viewed Jupiter through a telescope too many times to count, and each time it is a sight to behold. The four Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) are usually visible as small “stars” near Jupiter, but sometimes only three of them appear because one is in front or behind Jupiter. Yesterday night, however, in addition to three obvious moons, there was a funny black speck on Jupiter. There were also beautiful red stripes contrasting against the whiteish orange background. My suspicion? One of the moons was transiting Jupiter, and I could see its shadow!! I even convinced myself I could see the moon AND its shadow when the atmosphere was particularly cooperative. My evidence? What else would make a minuscule black speck on Jupiter… and I observed Jupiter both before and after everybody else, and I’m pretty sure the black speck had moved. Suspicion confirmed. (Set the time for around 8pm on Thu Oct 15 PDT to see for yourself – it was Ganymede.)
The generally awesome evening got me to thinking… why do we require field trips at all? So much of what is broadly termed “education” falls into the memorize, regurgitate, repeat category. Even more so at a state university with slashed funding and two furlough days per month for all faculty. I enjoy teaching a lab course that has no exams, and where you get credit for showing up and explaining what you did during class in words, after the fact. But for the field trip, the sole requirement is attendance. Students are never tested on what they see through the telescope. They aren’t asked to memorize constellations or names of stars. Yet they learn volumes just by opening their eyes. And the questions they ask! It seems to me that education is a lot more about experience than assessment. We need to go on more field trips.
Two other things I want to mention that are tangentially related to education:
- Harvey Mudd 1, Victoria’s Secret 0 – if Mudders can pull this off in their spare time, imagine what an impact we can make in the real world. Also it would totally rock if I could buy HMC sweatpants from VS.
- Raleigh, NC has an interesting and highly effective approach to education reform, discussed here by a British journalist. I was a huge proponent of neighborhood schools until I read this, and now I’m unsure what to think.
Unrelatedly, this week has been nuts. One postponed jury summons, two parking tickets, one crashing computer, one midterm, and zero nights when Mike and I have both been home prior to 9pm. Coming up this weekend: catching up on my grading (blech), taking the GRE (also blech), and not much else.