Planetary science engages people in a unique way relative to other scientific disciplines. In my experience, people are attracted to planetary sciences because they encountered beautiful images of planets like Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto from missions or they are intrigued by possibility of exploration. Students likely arrive in my class with a wide range of experience in the sciences and misconceptions about the natural world outside our planet. As a teacher, my duty to my students is to capitalize on their excitement and interest in this field. My goal is for my students is to develop the necessary skills to become a planetary scientist. These skills include:
- A strong understanding of the fundamental physical principles of planetary science and astronomy
- Critical thinking and questioning skills that synthesize the principles of planetary science and astronomy
- Ability to collaborate with a diverse team in an open and inclusive community
- Non-cognitive competencies associated with achievement and success (e.g. growth mindset, etc.)
These skills are dynamic and may apply to may fields of study or career paths. My role as a teacher is to create an open and inclusive learning environment where students can develop these skills. Whether or not students decide to peruse academic planetary sciences or astronomy, my goal is for them to leave my class with a better understanding of the universe and our place within it. I want to challenge my students to critically think about and discuss astronomy, especially how it is valuable to their lives, personally.
I approach teaching and learning from a growth mindset. Every student has the capacity, with appropriate effort, to develop the necessary skills to become a scientist. I aim to make courses I teach allow students to show continual development and improvement. I teach explicitly about the growth mindset, and other non-cognitive traits associated with achievement and success, emphasizing time on task and effort as the means to learn. I employ active learning techniques to develop the skills described above. My courses consist of mini-lectures (5-30 minutes), collaborative learning activities (e.g. think-pair-share, clearest/muddiest point) and formative assessment to develop students’ understanding of the fundamental principles of planetary science and astronomy. To further engage students in critical thinking, I use daily guided class discussions, collaborative assignments or short answer/essay questions. Using active learning techniques, student reflection and regular feedback, students and I can identify areas of strong understanding and areas to improve. In addition to the classroom techniques, I like to use a group work component in my courses. To develop these collaborative skills, I use guided group work that emphasizes appropriate codes of conduct, promotes communication, self-awareness, planning and personal responsibility. Collaborating on teams is a skill needed in many fields. Furthermore, I want to challenge my students to critically engage with structural inequality, unconscious biases and personal privilege in order to create an open and inclusive community.
In the greater scientific community, we have been grappling with structural inequalities that unfortunately plague most institutions of higher learning. Multiple scandals involving harassment and the conspicuous lack of people without dominant privileged identities (e.g., white, male, cis-gendered, straight, abled, etc.) in our field have forced us to face our silent, traditional demons. The Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, where I completed my doctoral work, is on the forefront of these discussions. Being there during that crucial period has given me insight into the nature and challenges of the entrenched inequalities we are trying to repair. The changes that are required to ameliorate these are not trivial however, the driving logic behind these efforts is simple: equity, inclusion and justice make science more excellent. By having more people from different backgrounds, with multiple perspectives, we create better science as a community. Increasing diversity is not just a lofty liberal ideal but rather a pragmatic necessity for the continued improvement of our understanding of the Solar System.
Bringing the necessary social changes to fruition will require efforts on all scales of the academy. I am committed to critically engaging with these difficult topics as a professor in my classroom and mentoring strategies. This focus on creating open, inclusive and safe classrooms welcomes students from all backgrounds and encourages everyone to participate in our field. Some of the methods I choose to employ to create classroom environments like this include: a class agreement about appropriate behavior (e.g. Recurse Center’s Hacker School social rules listed here: https://www.recurse.com/manual, specifically considering micro-aggressions); discussing explicitly issues of inequality in the sciences; discussing stereotype threat and other schemas that might affect students’ performance and strategies to combat them; teaching about the growth mindset; help students assess their learning through self-regulated learning strategies and finally, fostering a sense of belonging for all students. Every student needs feel a sense of being a valuable member of the community but is especially important in situations where students might feel particularly threatened, unwanted or unwelcomed. For students from historically underrepresented groups in higher education, these feelings may be more common in the classroom. Having a sense of belonging may help combat feelings of isolation and loneliness and this has been associated with persistence, retention and academic achievement in higher education.
Studying planetary science is in many ways a study of ourselves, the human race. We yearn to know our origins and our future. Our place within the universe includes observing the stars and galaxies around us and also encountering the culture we abide in. Education is not just about learning the principles of planetary science and astronomy but it is also about realizing the full potential of all students and treating them as whole people. We cannot reach our full potential of understanding of the universe without dismantling the structural inequalities around us. We cannot fully grasp the universe if we systematically exclude people with valuable perspectives. Creating an inclusive astronomy propels our understanding of the universe forward. My highest goal as a professor is to show each student that they have the potential to be a planetary scientist.