One Teacher’s Zooniverse Experience

 

Today’s guest blogger Ricardo Pollo was a Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop participant.  He is a teacher, sailor, and musician originally from Miami, FL. He has degrees in Environmental Studies and Sociology & Anthropology, and an MA in Comparative Sociology. He lives with his wonderful wife and amazing baby boy–in the house of their dreams–in Harwich, MA.

I first discovered Galaxy Zoo when I was a teacher in need. I was in my second year, and in a very challenging situation. I was responsible for 200 students, and I only had 90 minutes of planning time every other day, which I had to use to plan for three separate subjects. I bring this up because, back then, I simply did not have that much time to look for new and amazing ways to hook my students into our lessons.

I was teaching a course called earth/space science which, although burdened with a clunky name, was actually pretty great. The biggest problem was that about 80 percent of my students spoke English as a second language, and I needed something besides words to get them excited about our lessons. We had reached a section where we were learning about different types of galaxies, which lends itself to being wowed by. After all, I certainly was when I first learned how many of these things there were out there, and the baffling number of stars they contained. The textbook had relatively interesting pictures, but the treatment was pretty dry. So I did what I always did, and what I continue to do today: I went online and looked for lessons to loot!

In my piratical forays into the world of space education, I came across Galaxy Zoo. I think the keywords I typed were “galaxy classifications,” so it’s no wonder I stumbled across the site. But a “stumble” is not how I would have described it at the time. It shocked me like a peal of thunder on a quiet night, like the light that hits you when you leave a cave after hours of exploring in darkness. Sometimes I imagine what it would have been like to be alive during a cataclysmic meteor strike, calmly loafing on a hillside, staring at the clouds, when suddenly a giant, fiery boulder comes streaking through the atmosphere to lead us all into another geologic age. This is the effect Galaxy Zoo had on me back then, sitting in the staff room, with no other place to plan, and just trying to do something different with my kids.

The rest is honestly kind of anticlimactic. I logged on and classified a few galaxies, and fell in love, hard. I was really struck by the idea that I was looking at pictures that no one else had looked at before. It appealed to the same part of me that likes to pick up trash when I’m out for a walk in the woods: “Nobody’s gotten around to this one yet, I might as well do it.” But instead of keeping things tidy, I felt like I was helping other tired grad students (for I had been there) do something wonderful.

 I couldn’t wait to show my kids. I was so excited! The day came and I nonchalantly put the site up on the projector, and explained to them how it worked. These were pictures of actual galaxies, trillions and trillions of miles away, and we were helping scientists paint a picture of what was out there! The result was an astounding sigh. I couldn’t understand it really. This was absolutely, out of this world, cool. Why weren’t they getting into it? I know the answer now, of course. I stood up there, flipped through pictures, and showed them how to classify them. I showed them how it coincided with what we had just learned about the major types of galaxies. Then I let volunteers come up and touch the magic board themselves. Surprise, surprise, it wasn’t a huge hit.

At the time I thought it might be because some of the pictures were grainy, or maybe they weren’t really able to wrap their heads around the science. So I found another site, a collaboration between NASA and Microsoft, that was designed in part to categorize pictures sent back by Martian rovers. Here was a chance for them to see pictures of the Martian surface, and just look around. I especially loved the pictures that had a part of the rover in frame. And as a bonus, the whole site is very well designed, modeled after a combination computer game/space port. When that site didn’t go over well either, I started to think there might be something wrong with my kids. Since then, I’ve continued to use Zooniverse sites in my classes, particularly Snapshot Serengeti, Seafloor Explorer, and most recently, SpaceWarps. But I’ve always approached this as an added bonus, never as an integral part of our lesson. Some kids have responded really well to it, and I’ve heard quite a few stories of families getting into classifying together. But I never felt like I was using these websites very effectively. 

Obviously, I jumped on the chance to apply for the first Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop. I was giddy when I found out I could go, and the experience was a remarkable one. But more than anything, I’m excited to have actual tools, not to mention tons of lesson plans, that I can use in my science classes. I wrote a plan myself, to use with the Whale.fm whale call classifying site, and I’m getting antsy to use it. Unfortunately, I don’t get to acoustics until April or May, so I’m definitely going to have to try someone else’s plan in the meantime. Lucky for me, the ZooTeach site is filled with great ideas and lessons to use. But really, I’m just thrilled that, after 5 years, that nagging feeling that this amazing tool was being totally underutilized, has finally left me. Good riddance!

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