Harry L. Shipman

University of Delaware
2003 DTS Award

Dr. Harry L. Shipman
Annie Jump Cannon Professor of Astronomy
University of Delaware

Dr. Shipman's Homepage

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Harry L. Shipman.

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?

Visitors are often surprised that they are asked to work not just visit in the back row. A few years ago, Steve Sobek, a local newspaper reporter, sought to do a profile on me and asked to visit my "Science and Religion" class. I asked him to sit with a group, and hopefully, to contribute to the group discussion. Each of my classes is a combination of some teacher-talk and some group discussion. Visitors usually leave with the impression that students' minds have been engaged in whatever issue, problem, question, or task that their group has been assigned. They realize that a noisy classroom - students talking to each other - is often a sign of successful teaching (as long as the students are on-task).

I haven't stopped lecturing. There are uses for lecturing, but simple delivery of information that is otherwise available in a book or on the world wide web is not one of them. Most of the time, I do lecturettes (15 minutes or less) instead of lectures. My educational research - and that of others - shows that for a wide variety of audiences, attention fades after about 15 minutes.

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

I've always been more interested in teaching than some of my colleagues. A generation ago, when I was younger, this meant gathering slides and demonstration ideas for what I hoped were "ever-more-interesting" lectures. I once dressed up as D'Artagnan for a demonstration that had something to do with the tiny size of the atomic nucleus. I was the American Astronomical Society's Education Officer in the early 1980s.

About fifteen years ago, I went to an astronomy education conference and saw Phil Sadler's video "The Private Universe." Phil shows 23 Harvard graduating seniors, alumni, and faculty giving very well-articulated answers to questions about the origins of the seasons and the lunar phases. These students had experienced the best lecture-based education on the planet. Twenty-two of the 23 people who were interviewed gave answers that were wrong. Even elite students still had common misconceptions about natural phenomena. I confirmed Phil's finding with my own students. I realized then that the answer was not "ever-better" lectures. The student needed to be at the center of the learning process.

Even in very large classes, I have students working in collaborative groups during every class period. While the use of collaborative groups is quite old, this technique, used in big classrooms where hundreds of students sit in fixed, forward-facing seats, still seems to be one of the frontiers of education.

And my students are learning better. I know because I check.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

Yes, there are risks, two kinds of risks. First, there's a risk to the student. Whenever you set students to work in groups, the groups end up controlling, to some extent, what the class does. When I invited the reporter Steve Sobek to sit with a group in my Science and Religion class, I hoped that the group would stay on task and learn what I intended. (They did.) When you shift the responsibility of learning to the students, it becomes pretty obvious when a teaching sequence doesn't work.

The second risk - the risk to your career - can be bigger: can you teach in nontraditional ways and still keep your job? Sometimes your student evaluations will suffer when you do something different, especially the first time. It happened to me in 2003 when I first team-taught an integrated, 15-credit course that combined life science, earth science, physical science, and science methods for future elementary-school teachers. The overall student evaluations of the science semester experience were extremely positive, but my piece of it earned the worst evaluations I had seen in 30 years of teaching. My colleagues helped me figure out one of the major causes, and my numbers came back up in the spring of 2004.

At the University of Delaware, and I think at most places, someone's career can survive one semester of poor student evaluations. My own numbers when I first started teaching were so-so. I used student feedback, videotaping, and whatever tools were available at the time to improve.

I have always believed in the importance of teaching. No amount of skepticism from well-meaning colleagues or department chairs was ever able to convince me of settling for mere adequacy in teaching and spending almost all of my energy on astrophysics research. Is my teaching effective? I am confident that the techniques of science education research can tell me whether my teaching is achieving the goals I set.

Students, sometimes years later, tell me about the way my teaching has affected them. And I have found many colleagues - some in my department, some in other departments at my university, and some in other universities in the state - who are supportive.

When I try something new, I always seek different and appropriate ways to figure out whether it works. When I introduce one new group activity as part of a teaching sequence for a familiar, overall concept, it seems most appropriate to document success by keeping track of student surveys and their performance on exam questions (see, for example, Shipman, H. (2001), Hands On Science, 680 Hands At a Time, Journal of College Science Teaching (JCST) 30(5): 318-321). New approaches to major concepts, such as student conceptions of the nature of scientific theories, require a much more extensive investigation (see, for example, Dagher, Z., Brickhouse, N., Shipman, H. & Letts, W. (2004). How some college students represent their understanding of scientific theories, International Journal of Science Education (IJSE) 26:735-755.)

These two citations illustrate the two broad classes of science education literature. The "practitioner literature" is written and read by people who teach science and is found in journals like College Teaching, JCST, The Physics Teacher, and the recently established, all-electronic Astronomy Education Review (aer.noao.edu/). The science education literature includes IJSE, Science Education, the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, and other similar journals whose readers and editors are generally science education faculty members. These communities interact much less than they ought to.

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 used various channels within the University to make connections with other faculty who share my goals. Our Center for Teaching Effectiveness puts on many programs that can bring people together. In the early 1990s, two lunch groups were established to help faculty reach across campus. These lunch groups have morphed into multi-day, campus-wide, sometimes internationally attended, teaching institutes. (See www.udel.edu/ugs/gened/gei2004/index.htm and www.udel.edu/inst/.)

I have discovered or helped create many professional communities at national levels. My small, early efforts as the American Astronomical Society's first education officer have - largely through the efforts of my successors - grown to become regular Sunday pre-meeting sessions on college teaching. A group of astronomers seriously interested in education has formed a community, which includes two fellow NSF Distinguished Teaching Scholars, Dick McCray and Chris Impey. I go to meetings of relatively large communities like the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (www.narst.org) and smaller ones like the International History and Philosophy of Science in Teaching group (www.ihpst.org).

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?

First, I concur heartily with what every other Distinguished Teaching Scholar has said: "get a life." Nurture your life. You need to do something for yourself, outside work. I have a wonderful wife and family. I also spend time training as a figure skater; my teams and I go to national competitions. I can do most of the single rotation jumps.

My second piece of advice comes, I believe, from something sent out by Project Kaleidoscope some years ago: find out the real rules for getting tenure at your place and follow them. You can't help reform the system if you're not in it. My hope is that even if the real rules are slanted too heavily towards research, your interest in teaching will remain alive and you can let it grow some more once you earn tenure.

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

My institution, the University of Delaware, has now reached a point where having students working together in groups is a relatively common practice. As I was contemplating my answer to this question, I heard something from the classroom across the hall that was music to my ears. Chair legs scraped as 40 students picked them up and arranged themselves in groups. The classroom then became much louder as groups of students started talking to each other. The instructor, Carolyn Bitzer, was doing just the right thing: getting student-interaction started on the first day of her women's studies class. She tells me that her activity was a way of getting the students to know each other and to share their goals for the course with each other and with the instructor. Classroom observation, student surveys, and instructor surveys concur: students work in groups at about half the courses at our place.

There's another sound of reform that you will find in my classrooms: the sound of silence. Virtually every one of my colleagues expresses a need for students to think during their classes. Standard pedagogical practice, however, provides almost no opportunity for students to do that. The air is filled with talking - mostly teacher-talk, some student-talk, and no opportunity for thinking. When I ask students a question, or ask them if they have any questions, I insert a pedagogic pause of 15 seconds when I don't say a word. The pedagogic pause usually elicits some student-talk that would be absent in the average American classroom, where the pause is less than one second. One of my favorite activities also uses silence. In "Think-Pair-Share," students are asked to think individually about a question for a minute. They then pair up with another student and discuss their answers. Pairs then share their answers with the entire class.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

National organizations of all types need to continue to make the case for taking education seriously. When I first joined the American Astronomical Society in the 1970s, teaching was something that was whispered about at national meetings. No more. Various disciplinary communities like the astronomers' education group, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the various biology education organizations are growing fast. Funding agencies are making it clear that education matters. I find it hard to believe that not all scientists have heard the message, but they haven't. As I was preparing this interview, I heard a scientist ask at a presentation, "Does the NSF even care about education?" I wanted to jump in with "What planet have you been living on for the past ten years?" I had the good sense to keep quiet.

The Distinguished Teaching Scholars met in June 2004 to try to figure out ways that we, as a group, could encourage and foster these trends. I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but I believe that most of us are willing, as our schedule permits, to go and visit other campuses and present workshops and programs. I've done a lot of that. We are exploring other ways that we can help jump-start the dialogue. I would welcome any ideas on how we can help out.

While much of what we want to do reflects the environmental movement's mantra of "Think globally; act locally," one global action which can make a difference is encouraging more conversations between the various communities that are interested in science education. One of the biggest surprises when I expanded my scholarly horizons beyond astronomy was discovering the number of different and largely separate communities that deal with the issue of science education. A few years ago, the American Astronomical Society met jointly with the American Association of Physics Teachers. Michael Matthews, the impresario of the International History and Philosophy in Science Teaching group, has often managed to schedule meetings that overlap with other similarly interested groups like the American and British History of Science Societies. There should be more of these joint meetings. When they occur, we need to be creative about finding ways to encourage members of the two organizations to talk to each other.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

The goal of my project is to develop, to evaluate, and most importantly, to publish a number of the curricular innovations that I have been using in my courses over the years. I've done some of this, but not as much as I'd like. I need a better web site. Others who are interested can e-mail me (harrys@udel.edu), read my papers in the journals and some of the science education books, or find me on the web, right now via Google.

The local K-12 teaching community participates in much of this work. In June 2004, we did an interesting lesson study exercise in which three 3rd grade teachers, who had led their students through a white-power identification activity, observed a class of college students who were also identifying white powders. In both cases, these activities were re-cast in the paradigm of problem-based learning, so that students understood why someone might want to identify a white powder. We have also used resources from grants to bring K-12 teachers to the University of Delaware as "teachers in residence" to work on various projects. The lesson study exercise, which is continuing, permits the K-12 and higher education communities to enrich and to inform each other's educational practices.