Sunday, May 20, 2007

Orbiter for Educators: Teaching is Hard!

Today I presented "Exploring Space with a Computer" at the Girls Scouts of Rhode Island SMART science/math event at Bryant University. This was the first time I had given this Orbiter-based talk in a situation with hands-on workshop possibilities, thanks to a well-equipped computer lab with 41 networked PC's. I installed Orbiter on 15 of them to support the estimated 10-15 middle-school girls per workshop (55 minute sessions, repeated four times). It was a good thing this installation was just a simple CD copy in Windows (I copied a complete home installation onto CDR for easy installation, but 3 or 4 copies instead of just two would have made the 15 installations go faster). The actual group sizes varied from 8 to 18, for a total of about 48 girls (plus adult leaders).

I kept the introductory PowerPoint and shuttle launch (playback) demo brief to allow most of the time to be hands-on with the software, and this worked pretty well. Most of the girls seemed to enjoy the activities, but I did learn some things that will help me improve such events in the future. For one thing, less is more. I had planned a solar system tour followed by a self-running planet/moon quiz using a different scenario. But it was clear that the time was better spent just exploring the first scenario, and making use of time acceleration, zooming, and panning to get a feel for the diverse appearance of the bodies of the solar system, as well as their motions. This was novel enough to hold their attention for about 15 minutes (the scenario had a lot of preset camera positions to make it easier to get around).

Another thing I should have done was make hand-outs that included step-by-step instructions for the Moon-base hover/rotate/move exercise. I had brought a few handouts (the requested copies from the organizers were lost in the shuffle of some 300 Girl Scouts and 70 presenters), and they listed a few main keyboard shortcuts and the keypad thruster controls, but not a step-by-step checklist. Duh! Many girls were too distracted by Orbiter itself to really watch my demos and listen carefully to the few essential steps I presented, and some ended up hurtling through space instead of hovering 10 meters over pad 4 at Brighton Beach Moon Base.

Two exercises (solar system tour and Moon Base Hop) were more than enough for 55 minutes, though I also had a space station docking exercise prepared! With step-by-step instructions, there might have been time for some free-form play and more questions and answers (I asked some but should have asked more, and the girls asked mostly "how do I fix this?!?"). I gave them handouts with download information to take home.

All in all a good first experiment with Orbiter in a workshop environment, but with setup from 7:45 to 10 am (plus a lot of preparation hours on Saturday afternoon and evening), and sessions from 10:30 to 3:30, I was really tired by the end of the day. I've taught many things, mostly professional training for adult engineers, plus some events for kids of various ages in optics and space. But I always forget how hard this is with kids, to stay patient and focused, and to keep it fresh. How do teachers do this day after day? Hats off to those of you who do!

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