Spring 2017 MIT Spark, Columbia Splash

This is very belated, but I taught two classes at MIT Spark and Columbia Splash this spring. Spark is aimed at middle school students, and Columbia Splash is for students in grades 8-12. The two classes I taught were both one hour long, one about weather data (in particular, using and interpreting skew T-log p plots) and one about ballet in the Soviet Union. Any feedback is welcome!

Understanding Weather Data

The course description for this class was:

Atmospheric sounding charts are generated from weather balloon data, and they help us understand and predict weather conditions. Come learn what temperature through the atmosphere looks like when there’s freezing rain and how to predict whether there will be a thunderstorm soon!

I listed “comfort with basic algebra” as a prereq for this course.

Basic outline for the course: Start by asking what kinds of data weather balloons collect. (Temperature, pressure, some measure of humidity, wind.) All of those but wind are plotted on this chart, which helps us understand and, to a lesser extent, predict weather conditions. Go through the meaning of each set of lines on a skew T – log p (temperature, pressure/height, potential temperature, mixing ratio, equivalent potential temperature), with exercises to check understanding for each. End with discussion/examples of what certain types of weather look like on a skew T – log p and why.

At Spark, I had sixteen students registered for this class, and fourteen showed. Five or six of them answered or asked questions at some point during the class, with three of those answering/asking most questions. There was never a problem for which someone didn’t give an answer, so I could characterize the group as responsive, but they didn’t seem to respond to me. It ended up feeling low on interactivity, and that’s not what I wanted. I felt like I talked way too much. I also got zero responses on the Spark survey about this class, so I’m feeling a little feedback starved.

I forgot to grab the VGA to HDMI adaptor before this class, so I ended up flying computer-less… kind of. I still walked around the room and showed them the three soundings I wanted them to see (a local snow from the day before, one with high CAPE, a freezing rain). But a computer would have been nice for confirming that they were all doing the right thing and same thing on the skew T log P chart. At Columbia Splash, I did have my laptop hooked up to the computer, so I was able to point to the lines on the screen and work out the various exercises on that big chart after giving the students some time to think. Ideally, students would be able to come up to the chart and show how they worked the problems.

A side weird thing: there was only one girl in the class at MIT, out of fourteen students. I’m wondering if there’s something I could do better in the course description, or maybe if the prereq was involved?

At Columbia, I had seven students registered for this class. Two of those showed, and I got a third student as a walk in. He was actually the most talkative, or at least the most willing to ask questions. I’m a little worried about how I handled the balance of him and the other two. They asked a question or two, and all three gave correct answers to skew T – log p practice questions at various points, but there were definitely times when I worried about them being lost.

I don’t think I did things in as sensible an order as I did at MIT; some of that was not looking over my lesson plan beforehand, and some of that is because answering questions made me get to certain concepts early. (And maybe that should make me revise my idea of what the “sensible order” for this class is.) I know for sure that the whole class came away understanding at least most of the things I talked about, but it was easy to know that when there were only three students.

This is a course that I enjoy and want to work, but it still feels off in some way, like it needs a different framing. I’ll have to keep thinking about that.

From Swans to Spartacus: Ballet in the Soviet Union

I taught two sections of this course at Spark and came away from them with wildly different feelings about how they went. The course description was:

We often associate classical ballet with Imperial Russia. However, ballet was also culturally important during the Soviet period, and balletic developments in the Soviet Union were really different from those elsewhere. We’ll talk about the history of Soviet ballet, how it influenced and was influenced by ballet in the West, and why only a few Soviet ballets survived the fall of the Soviet Union.

That’s a pretty good outline for what I covered. I started by asking what ballets students associated with Russia, expecting (and generally getting) Petipa/Ivanov ballets, and then I showed a clip from Swan Lake. From there, I went into the Soviet period, showing and discussing clips from The Red PoppyThe Fountain of Bakhchisarai, Romeo and Juliet, Spartacus by Yakobson, The Stone Flower, and Grigorovitch’s Spartacus as I went through the history. I ended by talking about how many Soviet ballets are still in the Mariinsky and Bolshoi rep and how many Western ballets are in their reps and then trying to tie a bow on it all.

I didn’t get a count on the number of people in the first class, but there were thirty-five enrolled, and I’d guess twenty-five to thirty students showed. I think about a handful of those were boys, which was about what I expected. Around eight of the students answered questions and shared observations, most of them multiple times in the class. They were noticing really important and relevant things, and they were engaging with each other’s answers. That active conversation gave me a good impression of how engaged the class was; I didn’t realize until after that maybe only a third or a fourth of the students were talking.

I can see how that would deceive someone about full class engagement in an even larger class; it might have deceived me here. I felt like this went well, and it got some really positive reviews (“Easily my favorite class.” Yes!) but also some lower ratings. I got one comment about not seeming enthusiastic, and I think that was a combination of a multiple things. The biggest was probably nerves about timing; there were a lot of video clips, and I was a little stressed about starting and stopping them in reasonable places so that I’d get through everything. This meant that while I played clips — a good portion of the class time — I was mostly looking down at my computer, probably frowning a little. I hadn’t thought about how that looked. The other big part was probably my general uncertainty about what to do while playing those clips. I talked a bit over some of them, but I didn’t want to say too much because I wanted to hear student thoughts after. After three runs of the course, I’m still not entirely sure how to do this well, though I did end up talking a bit more during the videos in the next two runs.

A lot of people in this class had seen a live ballet (more than I expected, honestly), and a lot of the people talking clearly took ballet. (That wasn’t surprising, but it’s still important to note.) It was the kind of group where I said something about Boston Ballet performing Romeo and Juliet next year and got a few heads nodding. I know not everyone is local, but lots of people are, and so I thought it was valuable to mention.

The second section, which was immediately after the first, was smaller (around 16 students) and did not talk. I asked for ballets they associated with Russia and got crickets until someone finally said “I know some Russian ballet companies perform Nutcracker?” I was hoping someone would say Swan Lake, but no such luck. That wasn’t a great start. I asked for a comparison between Swan Lake and Red Poppy later, and one girl responded; her response was very thorough, on point, and clearly from a dancer. Because of the lack of response overall, that class was a little awkward. I couldn’t tell if I was assuming the right level of knowledge or just missing them entirely.

A key thing that I could have done better, something I did do when I ran the course at Columbia, was write more on the boards. At MIT I wrote down some of the names (of people and of ballets), but I also erased a lot as I went, and I wasn’t consistent. At Columbia I ended up writing out a timeline as we went, so a lot of key points ended up on the board.

At Columbia Splash, I had five registered for From Swans to Spartacus, and two of those students showed up, both girls who dance. That was fun. The discussion wasn’t quite as good as in my first section at Spark two weeks earlier, but that might have been a function of the lower numbers, and both students were engaged. I also think I did a better job of portraying my love for this topic, but it’s hard to tell. (One did ask at the end how I ended up interested in this, so that’s a good sign.)

My time management was worse than at Spark. I had cut two clips, there was less discussion with the students than in the first Spark session, and I still finished just on time. I also didn’t talk about the defectors to the US beyond the fact that Plisetskaya didn’t defect. I did cover everything I thought was core to the class, though. (I think maybe my current course design for this class is light on the history of the Soviet union and assumes too much; I need to figure out a way to integrate that in better.) This is a class that I’m planning on running again at MIT Splash next fall given the large numbers at Spark. I probably won’t run it at Columbia again.

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