You teach advanced courses on radio astronomy in addition to introductory classes. How do you make science accessible to students of all majors?
I try to instill in students a basic understanding of how the scientific process works and what it’s like to be a scientist. Some students have old-fashioned ideas—that science is always right, for example, or that scientists are old men wearing white lab coats. To be a good scientist, you have to be a very good communicator and collaborator, and you often rely heavily on other people to give you feedback. And scientists are often wrong. Science is a process of eliminating ideas that don’t hold up under scrutiny, and sometimes you just have to say, ‘Well, we aren’t quite sure, but this is our best guess.’
I also try to make the subject matter very relevant to the students’ lives. We read popular science books and watch portions of Discovery Channel documentaries. Sometimes we watch parts of movies like Contact and Armageddon and then determine, based on what we’ve learned in class, what science is right and what science is wrong. I often ask them to write down topics they want to hear about, so we’ll touch on asteroid impacts, black holes, what’s going to happen to the sun, is there life on other planets—and that is really fun for me.
The intro classes are quite large. How do you keep students engaged?
We started using Personal Response Systems, remote-control-sized devices that allow students to ‘vote’ during class. They’ve been very popular, and they do increase participation. I use them for weekly quizzes, but they can be used in several different modes: you can lecture on a particular topic and then ask two or three questions to see how well the class understands the material, or you can use them to take attendance. I also like to use them in an entertainment mode for exam review sessions—like a version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? We give away T-shirts, gift cards, astronomy calendars, posters, so the students have a real incentive to play.
People have different beliefs regarding the universe and its origins. Do students ever approach you with those differing viewpoints?
The courses I teach are about science so I emphasize the scientific method. You wouldn’t apply the same set of principles to a religious belief as you would to a scientific observation. For something to be a scientific theory, it has to put forth testable predictions and then you have to be able to make observations that could prove or disprove those predictions. Things like intelligent design and creationism can’t necessarily be explored using the scientific method, but I won’t shy away from a discussion. Actually, I think talking about the nature of science helps students see the distinction. I don’t say, for example, that astrology isn’t right—there are going to be times when a horoscope may seem right—but it’s not science. I certainly have students who disagree with me, but I think they appreciate the fact that science is science and that we have our own set of rules.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
That I have as active a home life as I do. People tend to imagine scientists working around the clock, and although I certainly work as much as I can, I also spend a lot of time in front of our house drawing pictures in chalk with my 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. A nice thing about being a young woman scientist is showing students at all levels—from non-science majors to graduate students—that anyone who wants to do this kind of work can, that it’s feasible and that each person, regardless of gender or age, brings a unique perspective to science. All different kinds of people are needed to understand scientific questions.
by Sara Epstein Moninger