Astronomy Day: Learning through teaching 

During Astronomy Day in the University of Washington Bothell’s Commons Hall in May, students from Dr. Paola Rodríguez Hidalgo’s Intro to Astronomy course presented on topics ranging from black holes and the Big Bang Theory to moon phases and the solar system.

Every year, Rodríguez Hidalgo’s students organize the event as an opportunity to teach the public and their peers on campus about basic astronomy topics — topics the students in the intro class themselves only just learned.

The students each must sign up for at least two hours of teaching in collaboration with a community partner as well.

Through these quarter-long projects, Rodríguez Hidalgo, assistant professor in the School of STEM, employs a model for teaching often referred to as “learning by teaching.” The method involves students first learning to gain a comprehensive understanding of a topic and then teaching that same topic to peers or others through a presentation or similar project that can deepen their learning even further.

Tackling even hard topics

Rodríguez Hidalgo first came across this teaching method while working as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Toronto. When she attended a teaching and learning symposium at York University, she heard about dance students going into middle schools in the area at the end of their class to instruct kids on the same moves they had just learned.

“I thought it was a great idea, but several faculty members told me it would be an impossible endeavor in astronomy classes,” she said.

Undeterred, she pursued the idea and, through the university’s Centre for Community Partnerships, connected with program managers at after-school programs in low-income areas around Toronto.

“The rest is history,” she said. “I have been doing this since then and been involved with every service-learning and community-engagement center at every university I have been to. I love it.”

Practicing makes perfect

At the beginning of the quarter, Rodríguez Hidalgo’s students — most in their first year of college — learn about a wide range of astronomy basics. They are then invited to choose a topic previously talked about in class for their own presentations. They’re also told to choose a second topic outside of class to research on their own and incorporate it into a supplementary presentation.

“At the beginning, they are shocked and doubtful that they will be able to teach astronomy after learning it for only one month,” she said. “By the end, it builds up their confidence in public speaking and delivery of knowledge, as they themselves tell me in the post-action reflections we ask them to complete.”

Before presenting to the community, the students have multiple opportunities to present in class and to others outside the class to help learn the material through oral repetition.

“Creating these projects and having to present them over and over really solidifies all the information,” said student Liliana Flores “One of our professor’s key tips is to go around explaining to everyone everything we learn. So, I’ll walk around at home and tell my mom ‘This is what I’ve learned, let me tell you all about it.’

“In doing that, we’ve really got this down pat.”

Engaging with the community

Students also have shared ownership in selecting and working with community partners to arrange educational events. This year’s class presented at one of three venues: Skyview Middle School, Franklin High School and a library in the City of Bothell.

The students who presented at the library gave a preview presentation to the staff there who provided feedback, including ways the students could adapt their presentation for younger library visitors. About 45 people, including young children and their parents, joined in the event on Saturday, June 3.

“It was nice to be able to offer an interactive STEM program for families on Saturday — and we were able to introduce the public library to the UW Bothell students. Many of them said they hadn’t been here before and really liked the space,” said Katie Boyes, librarian and information services manager. “We enjoyed the partnership.”

At Skyview Middle School, the UW Bothell students attended two after-school programs. The school provided support by encouraging the middle school students to sign up for the presentations. In total, more than 25 signed up to learn about astronomy during their own time after school.

One of Rodríguez Hidalgo’s students who graduated from Franklin High School arranged the presentation there, partnering with his former science teacher and connecting with students through the school’s science club.

As Rodríguez Hidalgo prepared her students to give their own presentations, she not only taught them about astronomy but also gave them important tips on how to teach and present to different audiences.

Shaping young minds

“We started out with the young kids in mind,” said student Gregory Palmer, “so that’s what we shaped our presentation around.”

Students noted that one of the more challenging topics to present was the Big Freeze, a theory on how the universe will die. “It’s a little hard talking to them about how our universe will end. Their eyes will just get really big, and they’re kind of shocked,” said student Angela Duarte Valencia. “But it’s so cute listening to them just ask questions and be interested in this stuff.”

UW Bothell Student Gowiria Yousif said that asking the younger students questions to encourage them to think about the information and try to find the answer is instrumental to teaching children. Many of the presentations incorporated interactive components and opportunities to earn small prizes.

“I liked teaching to different people and different age groups,” Flores said. “At Astronomy Day, we taught college students — people our own age — and at the Bothell Library we taught mostly younger kids. It’s just very different but also a cool difference to see.”

The students from Rodríguez Hidalgo’s intro course also appreciated the collaborative nature of teaching as parents eagerly jumped in to help their children grasp what was being presented, said student Aidan Riffle. And oftentimes, younger space enthusiasts knew more about a certain topic than their parents.

A transformative experience

This kind of community-based learning is a passion for Rodríguez Hidalgo and one of the reasons she moved from California to join the UW Bothell faculty.

“It involves a large amount of effort on many fronts,” she said, “but it is completely transformative and removes the ivory tower concept that universities typically portray in our society.”

Over the many years she has used the model of learning through teaching, Rodríguez Hidalgo said she’s seen her students really benefit. In their interactions with younger audiences in the community, for example, her students are surprised to find themselves as role models for younger people.

She recalls one student from her time in Toronto who shared an experience in her post-action reflection about teaching moon phases to a young girl. When the child asked if a woman had walked on the moon, the college student looked it up and told her that, no, there have not been any female astronauts on the moon. The young girl then declared that she would become the first.

“My student wrote that the moment changed the way she saw the power of education — and the influence a student like her could have in her community,” Rodríguez Hidalgo said. “You never know the seeds you might be planting when you do these activities.”