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Teaching Science by Reacting to the Past

Posted by on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in News.

by CFT Assistant Director Derek Bruff

Last month CFT graduate teaching fellow Lily Claiborne and I attended the AAC&U / Project Kaleidoscope conference “Engaged STEM Learning: From Promising to Pervasive Practices.” (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.) Most participants were STEM faculty from a range of disciplines with some administrators and teaching center staff in the mix, too. Participants came from different types of institutions all over the United States. It was clear to me that these people were passionate about enhancing the effectiveness of undergraduate STEM education. The sessions and keynotes were informative and inspiring, and the attendees were active participants throughout the conference.

My favorite session of the conference was “Reacting to the Past: The Pluto Debate” facilitated by Tony Crider and Megan Squire of Elon University. When I walked in the room before the session started, Tony (who I interviewed for my book on teaching with clickers a few years ago) recruited me to play Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. See, Tony and Megan’s session was designed to introduce participants to the Reacting to the Past model for educational role-playing activities. And instead of just telling us about this approach, Tony and Megan had us participate in one such activity, “The Pluto Debate.”

Tony gave everyone in the session a role to play in a recreation of the meeting of astronomers that Neil deGrasse Tyson convened in 1999 at the Hayden Planetarium to discuss the possibility of “demoting” Pluto from its planet status. We played real astronomers, each with his or her own view on whether Pluto should be a planet. As Tyson, I opened and moderated the discussion. Everyone else participated in the debate as suggested on the “rolesheets” that Tony distributed at the start of the session. Each rolesheet provided an overview of the debate, as well as information on the astronomer to be role-played. Some argued for Pluto’s status as a planet, some against, and some were undecided. At the end of the 30-minute debate, I asked for a show of hands: “Should Pluto be kept in the planet club?” As Neil deGrasse Tyson, I wanted Pluto out of the planet club. Unfortunately, I lost. The planeteers won the day.

Playing Neil deGrasse Tyson in this mock debate wasn’t easy. Not only did I have to moderate the discussion, but I also had to follow the various arguments for and against Pluto’s status as a planet! I’m a mathematician, but I went through a “I want to be a planetary scientist!” phase back in high school, so the debate was fun but challenging. Should we have a common definition for a planet? If so, what should that definition be? Should it include something about the object’s size? Its orbit? Its satellites? Its ability to clear the area of other large objects? And should that definition change in response to new information, like the discovery of hundreds (now thousands) of trans-Neptunian objects? (I took particular delight in saying the phrase “trans-Neptunian objects” as many times as I could during the debate.)

During the debate, I kept wondering how many of the  conference participants in the room were astronomy, planetary science, or physics professors. Some of them handled themselves very well during the debate. I was sure there were several experts on Pluto in the mix. As it turned out, there were only two or three! Most of the participants who really shined in the debate were not specialists–they were biology profs, chemistry profs, and such. With just ten minutes to plan their arguments, they were able to hold their own and effectively explore various aspects of the debate over Pluto’s status.

After the mock debate, Tony and Megan gave us a chance to debrief the experience. Then they talked about how the Reacting to the Past method plays out in their classes. As you might expect (particularly if you’ve been thinking about social pedagogies, as I have lately), students find this activity incredibly motivating. Tony and Megan’s “games” typically run across two or three class sessions. Usually a couple of students will go above and beyond in their preparation for the first session, then really stand out during the in-class debate. This motivates many of the other students to take the between-session homework very seriously, coming well prepared for subsequent debates. Moreover they really want to win! By the final debate in the sequence, which usually ends with a vote or decision of some sort, students are invested in their side coming out victorious.

Reacting to the Past began as a project by Barnard College history professor Mark Carnes. Carnes designed very elaborate role-playing activities that stretched over weeks of a course, all intended to help students better understand history and historical thinking. See Carnes’ recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire,” for examples and his take on why the method works so well. Reacting to the Past has spread to 40 other colleges and universities, and faculty using this approach have designed 9 published “games” and have more than 20 more in development. See the Reacting to the Past website for details.

At some point in the past, Tony Crider learned about this approach and saw potential for it to work in the sciences, too. He and some colleagues were given an NSF grant to develop Reacting to the Past modules for science courses. Tony said that in the sciences, there’s often no time for a month-long Reacting to the Past game. Shorter ones are needed, particularly for introductory survey courses where they would be most used. So the games that Tony and his colleagues have been designed are short ones, intended for maybe a week of a class. They’ve been testing out their games at Elon and elsewhere and plan to publish them as the history-focused RTTP games have been published.

If you’re interested in implementing the Reacting to the Past method in your course, I encourage you to consider attending one of the RTTP conferences held around the country, particularly the annual institute this June. You’ll get the chance to participate in a few RTTP games and learn more about using them in your teaching. And if you’re a STEM educator, contact the RTTP folks about special NSF funding for attending these conferences.

Image: “Pluto (Artist’s Impression),” European Southern Observatory (CC)

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