August 29, 2015

Bad Vibes - Let's talk about sonification of data

When I see news stories that talk about sound, sound waves, acoustics, or the physics of music my defenses usually go up as I'm reading through the article.  I try to suppress the urge to pick apart every little detail that isn't exactly right, but sometimes I can't help myself. 

One trigger for me is the sonification of data - in other words taking a time-varying signal and turning it into an audible sound. There is nothing wrong with using this technique to explore something in nature, but it does not mean that the object is emitting a sound wave, playing a tune, or singing.

I ran across this article last week from, which starts with the following:

In space, no one can hear you scream — that's because on Earth, sound waves move through the air, and there is no atmosphere in space. In empty space, there is no atmosphere, so the sound waves don't have a material to travel through. It's impossible for humans to hear sounds in the vacuum of space just like it's impossible to surf where there is no water — the waves need something to move through.

But last year, scientists recorded sounds coming from Comet 67P/C-G using the Rosetta Plasma Consortium (RPC) magnetometer instrument.
This instrument measured the sound wave vibrations in the comet's magnetic field, according to a statement from ESA....
When I followed the link to the statement from the European Space Agency, there was no use of the term "sound wave" anywhere in it. I guess the writer just wanted to spice up the story a little bit. There's nothing inherently wrong with writing a story to be accessible to a wide audience, but it just seems wrong to start an article with the fact that sound can't exist in the vacuum of space, but then in the next paragraph start talking about sound waves from a comet.

If you are a science writer, please remember: sonification of data does not necessarily mean something in nature is producing sound waves.

August 17, 2015

Updating my accommodations statement in syllabuses

I'm updating my statement on accommodations for students with disabilities in all my syllabuses this Fall. I would appreciate any feedback or suggestions.

In previous terms I had a very standard, boilerplate statement:
Students with documented disabilities should notify the instructor directly about necessary accommodations.  The office of Student Accommodations and Resources (StAR) located in J-2025 provides assistance in verifying needs for accommodations and developing accommodation plans.
But, I want to try to make clear that I believe in fair accommodation for all students. So I'm updating this statement to say:
All students, regardless of physical or mental disability status, deserve an equal opportunity for success in all courses. As your instructor, I am deeply committed to encouraging your success and determined to make any possible accommodation necessary. 
Students with documented disabilities should first notify me directly about necessary accommodations as early in the semester as possible.  The office of Student Accommodations and Resources (StAR) located in J-2025 provides assistance in verifying needs for accommodations and developing accommodation plans.
Too often I have heard colleagues talk about what conditions students will face in future classes, transfer colleges, grad school or the work environment. I'm not interested in weeding out students who can't conform to arbitrary rules for completion of assessments and/or assignments. I am concerned with seeing that all students can meet their full potential and finding reasonable ways to remove unnecessary barriers to their success.

August 11, 2015

Astro-journal assignment for introductory astronomy

About a month ago I mentioned on twitter that I assign all my astronomy students to do an astro-journal. This has been a long running assignment since right after I started teaching astronomy over ten years ago.  I wanted something that would help students see that they can go from not really understanding much about the science of astronomy to becoming comfortable with the vocabulary and concepts related to the study of the cosmos. Additionally, I wanted students to be able to understand and predict how moon phases work as well as seeing that the study of space is something that is often in the news. (Why space is popular in the press is an interesting conversation to have with a class. I love when a student raises this question.)

One part of the astro-journal that I have retired from using is the "Adopt a space mission" assignment. I used to have students choose (or have assigned to them) an active space mission (unmanned) that they "adopt" and follow throughout the semester. I think it was often a valuable addition to the journal, but when we only meet twice a week, it becomes difficult to squeeze in class discussions about the space missions.

Here is the description that I have been giving my students for how to construct their astro-journal.

"By far the single most significant part of your grade will be made up by the score that you get on the astro-journal. The reason that this assignment is so heavily weighted is that I believe that it has the largest impact on your learning of the topics we are covering in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and space science. 
You need to establish a notebook or binder that is separate from the notebook that you use to take notes in class or while you are studying at home. You should start your astro-journal immediately.
Periodically your journal will be checked for progress. You will need to bring your journal to class in order for it to be checked. Each of the check-ins will count as a part of the evaluation of the journal. 
Your astro-journal will consist of two main parts and an optional third part. One part is a recording of your observations of the Moon. We will cover how to make these observations in class. The other main part of the journal is a record of your reading on current events in astronomy and space news. You need to find and read news stories from reputable sources, then summarize these news stories in your own words and write a brief reflection on what the news stories are covering. The optional part of the astro-journal is a section on ANYTHING else that you see in your daily life that relates to astronomy. 
A rubric is posted to the course website that explains how it is graded. Please let me know if you have any questions about the grading of the astro-journal."

Here is the last rubric that I used for the astro-journal project before I switched over to using a standards-based assessment and reporting (SBAR) method of assessment.  Really, the SBAR approach used the rubric as a starting place, just the point values were discarded. (Sorry if the formatting is weird here.)

Astro-Journal Rubric Name:___________________________________
This rubric is inserted into your journal. You have visited the professor's office to show this.

0-1 points
Journal check 1
Professor checks journal in his office during weeks 3 & 4

0-2 points
Journal check 2
Professor checks journal in his office during weeks 6 & 7

0-2 point
Moon Observations
AccuracyPhase drawn incorrectly; direction missing or wrong; time of observation missing or wrong; altitude missing or wrong; unphysical observation recorded & many indications of faked observations.

0-5 points
Moon phases generally drawn correctly. Occasional incorrect recording of direction, altitude, time. Horizon missing or unclear. Some indications of false (faked) observations.

6-18 points
Moon phase consistently drawn correctly. Accurate observations of direction, time, altitude. Horizon clearly drawn in all entries.

19 points
CompletenessLess than one accurate observation per week on average.

0-3 points
1-3 accurate observations per week on average.

3-18 points
3 or more accurate observations per week on average.

19 points
NeatnessObservations hard to decipher. Phases not drawn clearly. Records not organized in logical manner.

0-3 points
Observations are sometimes inconsistent and/or occasionally difficult to understand.

2-8 points
Observations easy to read and understand. Clear drawings. Logical organization & demonstrates creativity.

9 points
Current Events
AccuracyEntries include unphysical or scientifically wrong ideas. Entries out of date, with no context provided. Sources not cited or incorrect.

0-5 points
Entries are appropriate and relevant. Sources are listed, but not always cited correctly, completely, and consistently.

5-9 points
Entries are appropriate and relevant. Sources cited correctly, completely and consistently.

10 points
CompletenessLess than one entry per week on average. Most assigned entries & topics missing.

0-5 points
1-2 entries per week on average. Some assigned entries & topics missing.

6-16 points
2-3 entries per week on average. All assigned entries & topics included.

17-19 points
NeatnessEntries nothing more than copies or printouts of articles. No reflection is included. Organization is lacking or nonexistant.

0-4 points
Entries include partial information and partial personal reflection or no personal reflection is included. Organization is consistent and logical.

3-16 points
All entries include your own summary of the article or news item and a personal reflection. Organization is consistent and logical. Presentation of entries demonstrates creativity.

17-19 points

Anything else that you notice or observe that relates to or reminds you of astronomy throughout the semester.

Up to 15 bonus points.

I'm happy to share any of the original resources if you'd like them emailed to you, just let me know.