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Using an Observatory Project to Develop Professional Communication in Astronomy

Dr. Robert Hynes, Assistant Professor, Physics & Astronomy, Louisiana State University

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Summary

ASTR 4261 Students at work with the camera at the Higland Road Park Observatory-October2009
The major practical activity for Astronomy 4261: Modern Observational Techniques is an observing project using the Highland Road Park Observatory CCD (charge coupled device) camera. This project encompasses the formal portions for both written and spoken communication, and carries 55% of the course credit – it is a major assignment. In addition to the final report being submitted at the end of the semester, two interim written submissions and two oral presentations are required. All written and oral projects are modeled on real-world professional communication projects.

"Throughout the semester, students work on an extended research project, and document it in various stages through a number of written and spoken genres.

For example, written 'Notices of Intent' and 'Proposals' require detailed project-planning, and direct application of principles learned in the class. Students also participate in a peer-review process which reinforces concepts learned and often leads to a better appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of their own work.

Oral presentations are held before the end of the semester, while their projects are still in process. This approach enables students to evaluate their progress midway and provides an opportunity for peer and instructor feedback while there is still time to amend their strategies. Additionally, this mirrors professional conference presentations where the focus of any given talk is normally a component of a larger project which requires additional study.

Students present a final report that offers a coherent synthesis of what they have done with concepts, theories, and techniques learned in this and other astrophysics courses. Again this increases knowledge transfer and retention, and it also allows students to practice participating in the larger scientific discourse-community to which they aspire.

Overall, a major goal of the multiple assignments is to showcase some of the different kinds of scientific communication documents they will be charged with generating throughout their careers, and the sometimes very different agendas and audiences that they will need to address."

– Robert Hynes, LSU Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, explains how multiple genres and communication modes can work in unison to reinforce the nuances of a semester-long research project.

Learning Goals

Objectives

Robert Hynes and Students analyzing data at the Higland Road Park Observatory-October2009

  1. Learn to use a modern, computer-controlled telescope and acquire digital data with it.
  2. Be able to process digital data to extract scientific information from it.
  3. Along the way... understand the steps involved in producing the beautiful color images from HST and other telescopes.
  4. Know the principles behind the dominant imaging technology today: CCDs, and the reasons for their dominance.
  5. Understand major astronomical techniques: photometry, astrometry, and spectroscopy.
  6. Be aware of how all of the above have to be adapted to cope with other wavelengths such as X-ray astronomy, and how detector and telescope physics influences the way observations are performed.
  7. Learn to write professional-quality, discipline-specific documents: 1. Notice of Intent; 2. Project Proposal; 3. Final Research Project Report.
  8. Learn to effectively and professionally communicate scientific information orally: 1. Conference-Style Presentations of Project Findings (2 iterations) & 2. Participation in a Scientific Round Table discussion of all the research projects.

"The C-I observational astronomy course prepares us for a career in astronomy. We get a feel for what the job entails by writing research proposals and communicating in the same manner as professional astronomers."

Zachary Cummings, LSU Junior, Physics & Astronomy

Context for Use

This project is best suited to upper-level, research-driven science courses. Although this particular model is for astronomy majors, the assignments can easily be adapted to any upper-level STEM course that involves significant student research: such as, capstone courses, independent research hours, honors theses, or any other advanced science course that requires students to formulate or answer advanced research questions, learn and implement signficant scientific methods and techniques, interpret results, and report findings. By asking students to document their work in way that mirrors the professional scientific community, we allow them to engage more fully in the process.

Description and Teaching Materials

Observing Project Overview:The major practical activity is an observing project using the Highland Road Park Observatory CCD camera. This project encompasses the formal portions for both written and spoken communication, and carries 55% of the course credit – it is a major assignment. In addition to the final report being submitted at the end of the semester, two interim written submissions and two oral presentations are required and contribute to the overall grade.

ASTR 4261-Dr Hynes-LSU-ProjectAssignments (Acrobat (PDF) 181kB Nov1 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

In order to effectively prepare students to engage in professional communication activities and to increase their level of sophistication, you can incorporate the following strategies:

1. Provide Models: Share and review professional documents with your class. If you have submissions from previous sections, share exemplary student examples.

2. Teach Communication Skills: Spend some time in class reviewing common pitfalls and successful techniques for effective execution of the projects you have assigned. For example, what kinds of information belong on a PowerPoint slide vs. what information should be simply spoken to the audience?

3. Create a feedback and revision loop: Have students work on these projects early and often and provide regular feedback and opportunities for revision to keep students on track.

Assessment

The final grade will be calculated according to the below breakdown, but because the whole course and all graded assignments are connected to the major practical activity, any given component will have implications for any other. The spoken and written professional communication projects will be assessed for both scientific accuracy and delivery using the formal rubrics developed by the LSU Communication across the Curriculum team.

Formal Written Communication Rubric (pdf file)

Spoken Rubric (pdf file)

References and Resources

Identify campus, community, and virtual resources available to students at your institution. Many colleges and universities have Writing across the Curriculum programs, writing labs, speech tutors, and other support centers for academic excellence.

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