Updated: 7 March 2011

How the CfAO's PDP Influenced Me and My Teaching *

by Kathy Cooksey

I credit the majority of my teaching expertise to the Center for Adaptive Optics Professional Development Program (CfAO PDP; Hunter et al. 2008). I participated in the PDP from 2004 to 2008, during which I learned and practiced pedagogy. Of all that I learned through the Program, "backward design" has become my most important teaching tool, and I work to be goal-oriented whenever I develop curricula and teach. As a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), I have had many opportunities to practice designing courses and activities, as well as teaching them. I value my current position as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in part because there is an education and outreach component, which gives me the freedom to continue teaching and developing my skills.

As a NSF science and technology center, the CfAO was required to devote roughly one-fifth of its resources to education and outreach. The PDP met this requirement by training scientists, engineers, and/or educators in inquiry-based teaching techniques and issues of diversity and equity in the sciences and, then, coordinating the participants to practice their teaching in various venues. Many participants would undergo many iterations of learning and teaching in the "PDP cycle." In the PDP community, "inquiry" refers to the process of learning science as science is done---with self-motivated, hands-on investigation. The use of inquiry-based teaching techniques enables students to take ownership of their learning; to practice science research skills (e.g., asking questions, designing experiments, communicating results); and to learn scientific content. With regards to diversity and equity, the PDP participants learned about the demographics of U.S. scientists, the stages where women and minorities drop out of science, and ways to patch the "leaky science pipeline" (Atkin et al. 2002, Hurtado et al. 2010). The majority of the PDP teaching venues affiliated were designed for the recruitment and retention of students typically underrepresented in the sciences.

The PDP cycle begins with its Professional Development Workshop (PDW), where new and returning participants spend a week experiencing educational activities as learners, learning about science education (e.g., Donovan & Bransford 2005), and designing an inquiry-based activity. Returning participants often become inquiry facilitators, discussion leaders, and/or design-group leaders, which helps the PDP staff but also helps the returning participants grow as educators. At my first PDW, I was a pure learner, but the next year (2005), I co-facilitated the "Light & Shadows Inquiry." This activity follows the most typical PDP inquiry format, as does the "Optics Inquiry" (Raschke et al. 2010), which I co-facilitated for a high-school program COSMOS; and the two inquiries share content goals. Therefore, it will be useful to describe the Optics Inquiry in some detail, as it will serve as both an introduction to the canonical PDP inquiry and a demonstration of my teaching experience.

The most fundamental content goals of the Optics Inquiry, which all students should learn are: light travels in straight lines, and light is emitted from a source in all directions. As "starters" for the inquiry, the students are shown interesting phenomena at three different stations, which motivate them to ask questions, and the latter become the starting points for small-group investigations into simple optics. For example, I, as the facilitator for one station, would ask the group what they would see on the screen when I turned on a lamp with an aperture in the shape of an 'F.' After a few people shared their ideas, I would turn on the lamp, which simply illuminated the screen. I then asked what would happen if I placed a convex lens in-between the screen and lamp; again, after hearing some comments, I would insert the lens, which produced in image of an inverted 'F.' I would then let the group play with the equipment, which included a variety of convex and concave lenses and lens mounts for the optical rail. I would show individual students new "tricks" (e.g., a combination of a convex and concave lens), if they seemed un-inspired by the original demonstration. The students would write any questions they had on strips of paper and leave them at the station. Once the students visit all stations and leave questions, we the facilitators hang the questions on the walls, organized by the content goal(s) that they address, while the students take a break outside the room. When everyone returns, the "gallery walk" begins, where the students review the displayed questions and stand by the one in which they are most interested. This allows for a fairly natural development of two to three-person groups, interested in one problem. We quickly set these small groups up with the equipment they need and prompt them to start answering their question.

Each facilitator, by design and by implementation, is in charge of several groups and responsible for guiding them through the iterative scientific process. We eavesdrop on their conversations and step in with questions or suggestions meant to further or re-direct their efforts, when we see the need. For example, if the group were aimlessly playing with the equipment, we would ask them to articulate the question that they were investigating and how what they were currently doing was helping them find the answer. There is a time-line for the groups to reach various stages of completing their investigation. The inquiry is typically spread over two days and lasts about six hours in total. By the end of the first day, the groups have a well-defined question and path towards solving it. The overnight break lets their ideas stew, which helps problem-solving and prevents burn-out. The second day is when the students focus and answer their question(s). Then each group makes a poster and gives a quick talk on what they did. This whole process is a miniature research project, which brings with it a sense of accomplishment and ownership of the learning to the students, and, by going through the inquiry, they practice their research skills if not also learned new ones. The final part of the inquiry is the "synthesis," when we describe the content goals that we intended for the students to learn, but since (again, by design and implementation) at least one group had just presented on every goal, we mostly refer to their posters and re-state what they said.

After the PDW inquiry, all the participants would form small groups of eight to ten people (students and facilitators alike) to discuss the inquiry as educators. The students would learn about the facilitators' perspectives (the why's and how's of what they did), and the facilitators would learn whether their actions had the intended effects. This sequence of doing and then discussing was common during the PDW.

Therefore, discussion leader was another advanced role that returning participants could assume. At the 2006 PDW, I was a discussion leader for the "Three Kinds of Hands-on Learning" activity (see Institute for Inquiry URL), and I co-facility the whole activity for a UCSC undergraduate education class in 2007. This activity enabled the participants to experience three points along the continuum of hands-on learning, which ranges from cookbook-like worksheets to "pure" research. The three stations are roughly described as: a guided worksheet, a challenge activity, and an open "play" time. There is one group at each station at all times, so the groups experience the stations in different orders, which greatly influence their opinions of each kind of hands-on station. After the activity, the participants from the station groups are reorganized and redistributed into new discussion groups. The discussion leaders are responsible for guiding the latter groups through a productive conversation on the purposes, pro's, and con's of the three versions of hands-on activities. Since "Three Kinds" is a professional development activity, meant to train educators in the flavors of hands-on learning, the final discussion is the most important part of the activity. It is when the participants begin addressing the idea of "matching approaches to learning goals," as the final handout states. Lectures, worksheets, inquiries, discussions, etc. are all teaching tools and are appropriate for different situations depending on the goal(s).

This is the essence of backward design, which simply means being goal-oriented when developing and teaching curricula (Wiggins & McTighe 1998). Once I can articulate the aim of a class or activity, I can identify the learning stages through which the students must pass. Then, the necessary components of the curriculum design itself become apparent and form a skeleton for the class or activity. As I flesh it out, I evaluate each new component in terms of how it will help the students meet the goals. The constant focus on the goals also leads to them being refined and developed. When the design is finally implemented, I use the well-defined goals to emphasize the important points, to guide the students through steps, and/or to make decisions on-the-fly, as the need arises.

After learning about backward design during various PDW activities, the participants practice it when they join their design groups and transition to the next phase of the PDP cycle: teaching. The design groups, under the guidance of a design leader and, often, a "consultant," develop and teach an inquiry-based activity for one of the PDP teaching venues that take place at various institutions and at different times of the year. For the majority of my PDP cycling (2004--2007), I taught for the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS), which is a four-week residential academic and enrichment program for high-school students, those entering 8th grade to those just graduated. This often left me in a unique situation amongst PDP participants, in that I learned (and, sometimes, re-designed) and taught material developed by previous participants.

During the four weeks, the COSMOS students attend program-wide events (both academic and recreational) and their course "cluster" activities. Each cluster is a union of two science-based courses and has about 17 students. For 2004 to 2006, the astronomy course, for which I taught (Cooksey et al. 2010), was paired with a vision science course. Most of our cluster time was devoted to small-group research projects, which were designed like extended inquiries, with many of the same components of the Optics Inquiry described above. After brief introductions to the projects, the students joined a group of two or three. They all observed their objects with an actual telescope and CCD; they reduced and analyzed this data in collaboration with their project advisors. Finally, all groups spent a significant portion of their time preparing their final presentations since a COSMOS-wide requirement was for the students to give presentations to another cluster at the end of the four weeks and in their home community in order to receive a certificate of completion. Our PDP-affiliated cluster found great success through our dedication to the small-group research projects, as evidenced by the quality our final presentations as well as by the students' own assessment. They all raved about their research project and groups in their evaluations, and when I talk to previous students today, they fondly remember project time more than the lectures and activities that preceded it. In 2004, I was a project advisor for the Variable Stars Project (see Cooksey 2004 URL for more details).

My experience as a project advisor---witnessing the enthusiasm, motivation, and dedication my students had for their work---made me a strong supporter of project time when I was the astronomy lead instructor from 2005 to 2007. My first year as the lead instructor was similar in level of PDP support as previous years, so I could use the already-developed curriculum largely as is. Thus, my first year was learning to be a course instructor. I applied my PDP training to understand the goals, which enabled me to schedule the course appropriately; to elicit student-participation during standard lectures; and to constantly assess how the course was going, from the perspective of the students, the other instructional staff, and myself.

During the next two years, I adjusted the curricula because there were different constraints (e.g., partner course changes) but also because I saw areas for improvement, to help address course goals better. Some changes were successful and worked out as planned; others were not for various reasons that I can now identify. In both cases, I learned and improved as an educator, which, from my and the PDP's point-of-view, is what we want to happen.

For example, in 2006, we were unable to schedule a tour of the UC Berkeley School of Optometry, the main field trip for the vision science course. I thought that, since my previous students took it as a point of pride that our cluster went on many field trips, I would organize an on-campus "field trip," with a picnic lunch and tour of the Laboratory for Adaptive Optics (LAO), after which we would have a group discusion about what it means to be a scientist. My goals were to: (1) please the students; (2) give them a break from the intensive project time occurring during that week; (3) let them see experimental research into AO; and (4) address directly any misconceptions the students may hold about scientists. The activity partially failed with respect to the first goal; I learned that the students enjoy going off campus but otherwise prefer to eat lunch in the cafeteria, where they could meet with their friends from other clusters. Though it seems contradictory for me to say that I was a "supporter of project time" and yet purposefully schedule non-project time, it actually has a strong pedagogical motivation, justified by experience. Simply, by that (fourth) week, the students were showing signs of fatigue from intensive academics and recreation. Also, like the canonical PDP inquiries, the project groups benefitted from time off, when new ideas and understanding could percolate. The third goal arose out of typical pedagogy: repetition. The students had received an AO lecture from me and were shown the AO system at Lick Observatory; the LAO tour enabled them to see an AO system in person and to play with the AO demonstrator (Ammons et al. 2010).

The last goal addressed the fundamental PDP goal of increasing diversity and equity in the sciences. The gradual attrition of American students at all stages of the path to a science-related career is commonly called the "leaky science pipeline" (Atkin et al. 2002). The pipeline must be fortified at every step: kindergarten through 12th grade, undergraduate, graduate, and professional. I, and many of my colleagues, identify a good middle- or high-school science experience as the inspiration for becoming a scientist. Therefore, I have devoted a good portion of my teaching time to the high-school age group through COSMOS, where my cluster targeted and recruited students typically underrepresented in the sciences.

Science thrives as a discipline when it attracts the most talented and dynamic minds. If bright people are prevented from entering science by factors unrelated to their ability, it is unfair to them and science as a whole. Effectively excluding entire sub-populations excludes the perspectives, interests, and talents of those groups and hinders scientific progress. It also handicaps wide-spread support for publicly-funded science, since groups who are not included in the scientific research are not inclined to support it. The demographic profile of American scientists does not reflect the national racial and gender profile (see Figures 3-27 and 5-14 to 5-16 of the National Science Board 2010).

As I mentioned, during the PDW, we learn about issues of diversity and equity in the sciences. One way that is known to help is to tell the students about the issues, which was my intention for the "what is a scientist" discussion. The activity was partially successful, but it was not carefully designed. After a few more years of PDW training and a better developed teaching skill set, I actually want to design a course partially dedicated to informing young women and minorities about the issues and equipping them to persevere and succeed. This is part of the education and outreach that I will do in partial fulfillment of my NSF Fellowship.

In 2007, the astronomy course was paired with a mix biology course, and I was able to implement a big, and ultimately successful, change to the astronomy curricula. I changed the Optics Inquiry into a smaller, hands-on "guided activity" on optics and telescopes. Then we had time for the Color, Light, & Spectra Inquiry that was customized for high school students. My goal was for the students to better, more fundamentally understand the properties of color, light, and spectra and their importance in astronomy. Also, from a conceptual perspective, this inquiry content allowed the students more flexibility in how they understood the physics, whereas the Optics Inquiry content predominately relied on all the students learning ray-tracing. The students definitely learned the properties of color, light, and spectra, and they used this knowledge when studying their astronomical phenomena during project time.

I finally led a design team in 2008, when two UCSC postdocs and I developed a galaxy morphology and composition inquiry for the undergraduate astronomy course that I taught (Cooksey 2008 URL). The course was part of a five-week summer session at UCSC and fulfilled two general requirements: mathematics and an introduction to natural science. Therefore, two course goals, as dictated by the university, were to improve the students math skills and increase their understanding of science through the study of astronomy. I learned from others who previously taught the course, that the students typically were fourth-year non-science majors, fulfilling their last requirement before receiving their bachelor's. Thus, many, if not most, students might not have taken a math or science course for several years.

Therefore, our primary goal for the inquiry was to introduce galaxies in a very hands-on, accesible way so that students who were leery of taking a science course or were comfortable with science would both have something to learn. The formal content goals were for the students to understand: (a) electromagnetic radiation is all astronomers have to study; (b) a galaxy has components: stars, gas, and dust; and (c) how to interpret astronomical evidence (e.g., what do colors mean). We assessed whether we accomplished this last goal by the students viewing a slew of astronomical images of new objects and being able to make general statements based on the projection effects and color-temperature content that they had learned. Many students did correctly remember, for example, that red galaxies tended to have old stars, during subsequent class periods.

Since I was designing the course curriculum in tandem with the galaxy inquiry, I was able to tightly mesh the goals of both. Some of the broader course goals were the same as the inquiry goals, listed above. Also, I scheduled the inquiry for the first week (alternatively, the inquiry was designed for the first week) so that I could get all the students understanding of astronomical images to the same level. I invested time in this early step so that later lectures and activities could proceed quicker, My plan worked for most students. Were I to teach this course again, I would design activities for those students who did not understand as well as I wanted.

It may seem odd to begin an introductory astronomy course for non-majors with the study of galaxies; often such courses begin with the solar system and move up in scale. I designed the whole course to start broad and general. I taught about the properties of radiation and its importance in astronomy, then about the history of the Universe. We focused in on stars and galaxies before backing out to the future of the Universe. By giving the students the big picture first, I gave the students a conceptual scheme around which to organize the new knowledge. In addition, I knew that cosmology and the Big Bang would capture the students' interest the best. This worked exceptionally well, and we had a few animated discussions about the big picture topics at the beginning and the end of the course.

The stars and galaxies sections were when I concentrated most on teaching math. I had the goal to grade the students partially on how much their math skills improved. I tried giving equivalent quantitative tests early and late in the course. However, I did not know how to construct such tests and grade them. As I have learned about the technology-enabled active learning (TEAL) course at MIT (Dori & Belcher 2005), I have learned about proper pre/post-concept tests and the "Hake factor" (Hake 1998), which is a measure of actual gain versus maximum possible gain. The pre/post-concept test is a factor in the students' final grade. The TEAL course has many elements of the PDP inquiry format. The students spend most of the class time solving problems in their small groups. The instructional staff facilitates the process. So I come prepared with these skills when I teach this spring. The largest challenge---and the reason I chose to teach a section of this course---will be working with college students with strong science backgrounds.

I teach for many reasons. One of which is to constantly improve my teaching skills and to learn new techniques for new situations. This actually improves me more broadly and generally. What I have learned through the PDP has also influenced how I conduct my research. This makes sense, since I firmly believe what I teach will help students become better scientists; it surely do the same for me. So I try to keep my goals in mind as I go about my research, and I assess whether what I am doing is moving me to accomplish my goals. I also teach because I want to train future scientists; it is beneficial for the field and for myself. Lastly, and most importantly, I teach because I enjoy it immensely.


Ammons et al. 2010, ASPCS, 436, 409.
Atkin et al. 2002, Journal of College Science Teaching, 32, 2, 102.
Cooksey et al. 2010, ASPCS, 436, 395.
Cooksey 2004, http://guavanator.uhh.hawaii.edu/~kcooksey/COSMOS/varstars04.html.
Cooksey 2008, http://guavanator.uhh.hawaii.edu/~kcooksey/teaching/AY5.html.
Donovan & Bransford, eds., 2005, How Students Learn, National Research Council of the National Academies.
Dori & Belcher 2005, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14 (2), 243.
Hake 1998, American Journal of Physics, 66, 64.
Hunter, L. et al. 2008, http://cfao.ucolick.org/EO/PDP/CfAO_Prof_Dev_Program.pdf.
Hurtado et al. 2010, Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
Institute for Inquiry. "Comparing Approaches to Hands-on Science." http://www.exploratorium.edu/IFI/workshops/fundamentals/comparing/index.html.
National Science Board, 2010, NSB Pub. No. 10-01.
Raschke et al. 2010, ASPCS, 436, 143.
Wiggins & McTighe 1998, Prentice Hall.

* This was an early draft of my teaching statement for a faculty application with Stockholm University (January 2011). I liked the narrative style of this, though for the actual application, I submitted something more "me" focused (available here).