Chris Impey

University of Arizona
2002 DTS Award

Dr. Chris Impey
University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy
University of Arizona

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Chris Impey.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab-the environment in which you work with students-what impression would s/he leave with?

The most important impression would be that learning is a dynamic process, that teacher and learner must both be engaged, that all knowledge must be challenged before it becomes part of our world view.

There is a concept that has emerged from the study of artificial life-computational processes that mimic biological processes-that says that complexity and life evolve at the boundary between order and disorder. A classroom is full of complex interactions. If the pattern and order is too rigid, then students follow a preset framework and are not induced to think and question what they know. This is like passively reading a textbook or content on the web. On the other hand, if there are too many tangents or too many interruptions to the flow, the result is chaos. The best classrooms combine a real sense of direction with a liberating freedom in the expression of ideas.

At most universities, the large lecture class will be with us for the foreseeable future. Luckily, there is a wide range of active learning techniques that can engage students in their own learning. I try to use as many as possible of these in my classroom-small groups, pair-share, preceptors, polls, debates-these techniques work in almost any discipline.

In terms of astronomy, I hope a visitor to my classroom would get an appreciation for an ongoing intellectual journey. In just a few hundred years, we have used technology and the power of thought to transform the view of our place in the universe.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

Sometimes it starts as simply as wondering if you are doing your job properly. I know how to learn about the universe. I know how to take motivated learners, majors and graduate students to the next level. But non-science majors have varying (and often dispiritingly low) levels of motivation and engagement. Knowing that teaching is not the same as learning led me look hard at the factors that facilitate learning. That in turn led me to consider instructional technologies.

Scientists have always been front and center in the information revolution. We push the envelope of computing. We were the early pioneers of the Internet and the Web. It is natural to take those technologies and push them as far as possible in the service of education. The pitfalls are obvious: use of technology for its own sake, neglect of the social factors that influence learning, and the tendency for information overload. However, each entering freshman is more wired and webbed than the class before. Students are highly receptive to new instructional technologies.

In terms of my own research, it is easy to connect astronomy and education. Astronomy is a visually rich subject. A deep image from the Hubble Space Telescope contains hundreds of fuzzy blobs. This simple fact is transformed when a student learns that each blob is the sum of light from many billions of stars, and that we can measure the galaxies to learn about the size and shape and age of the universe.

Were there risks in doing this? What made you persevere?

In one sense, there is little risk. People who do this kind of work are highly motivated and they do it because of their fervor. In the purest sense of academia, intellectual adventuring is the name of the game. The transformation of the information revolution has been so fast and so profound that nobody can predict with any confidence what our world will look like in only fifty years. This is liberating. Ideas can and should be explored without too strong a fear of failure.

However, academics also live in the real world (some of the time, anyway), and it is a simple truth that Research I universities do not esteem research on education as much as they esteem research within a discipline. Promotion, tenure, and performance evaluations hinge on this distinction. In a sense, the NSF and other agencies are ahead of the curve on this issue. By placing strong emphasis on education and societal impact, I hope they will influence the academic culture in a favorable direction.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

I have a small set of colleagues, within my department and around campus, with whom I can brainstorm and exchange ideas. This keeps me from feeling isolated. It is also inspiring to travel overseas and meet educators who struggle with the same issues in very different circumstances and cultures.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

One of my best mentors, back when I was a postdoc, took me aside and said "When you are on your death bed, is it more likely that you will wish you had written another few papers, or that you had spent more time with your kids?" This is essential, life-altering advice. Scientists begin with simple curiosity and it grows into a motivating, rewarding and sometime consuming passion. Unfortunately I know a few who turned their backs on their humanity along the way.

Balance is essential, but the professional pressures all go the wrong way. Universities ask more and more of their faculty, and the best departments create a culture of ambition and competition that can be corrosive. Careers have an arc, and everyone is quick to point out if someone seems to have slowed their ascent. Academics are intensely self-motivated. It doesn't take much of this external "fuel" for balance to be lost entirely.

That's the bad news. The good news-advice I would give to any colleague-is that you can and should make your own path. Write fewer but stronger papers. Think outside the "box" of your discipline from time to time. If teaching inspires you, do it, you will get your reward from all the lives you touch. Let your sense of balance be a positive on any dysfunction you may have in your own academic setting. Never neglect your family and friends. If you are like most scientists I know, you owe them an enormous debt. My favorite scientists are also excellent human beings.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

Leadership comes from the top, so we can judge the direction of and institution by the pronouncements of its academic leaders. The best direction is one that embraces Ernest Boyer's different modes of scholarship and gives attention and support to them all. But the resistant strains in a university are often those at the level of units and departments. Young academics set their course according to their immediate colleagues and their sense of the reward and P&T systems. Departments offer the most effective incentives to nurture integration of research and teaching.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts?

Progress at the national level is already excellent. The NSF and other federal agencies have made education and outreach a high priority for the research community. Professional organizations need to do this as well, to address the asymmetry that exists in the perceived importance of research and education.

What is the project you are undertaking as part of your DTS award? How can others be involved?

My project involves the creative use of instructional technology to teach astronomy to non-science majors. I will be using modes of instruction that engage the learner. The most important tools will be virtual worlds, interactive Java applets, interactive testing materials, games, a natural language expert system, and the ability to deliver content to handheld wireless devices. If anyone wishes to test these tools, provide feedback, or give suggestions, they are welcome to check out the evolving capabilities of the web site at http://www.astronomica.org, and contact me directly at cimpey@as.arizona.edu.