Amateur Astronomy Under The Big Sky
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    Tech Tools for Assessing the “Soft” Skills

    By: Cathy Swan in Tech&Learning Magazine, March 2014

    Lynn Powers with her amateur astrophysicists, Madeline Kelly on the left and Hannah Cebulla on the right.

    Search for “soft skills” in Google and you’ll find 45,800,000 results. The first screen includes business Web sites, Web sites listing job and interview skills, career developer Web sites, and an article from National Careers Service asking, “What are the ‘soft’ skills employers want?” The U.S. Department of Labor links to a curriculum focused on teaching workforce readiness skills to youth ages 14-21 called “Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” The course consists of six modules: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem-solving and critical thinking, and professionalism. The one link focusing on education is titled “Should schools teach soft skills?” Forty-five million sites think we should.

    Reflection and Goal Setting: Google Docs and Spreadsheets

    Hannah Magnan and Susan Steidl, New Canaan High School English teachers in Connecticut, formulated a plan to teach students to reflect more deeply and to appreciate reflecting as an essential life skill.

    They ask students to submit work on a Google doc, which receives written feedback in the form of inserted comments from their teacher and peers. Students document and track this feedback on their own spreadsheets in Google Drive. After gathering enough evidence, each student evaluates the feedback, searches for patterns used to develop specific writing goals, submits plans for achieving those goals, and writes reflections on each step of the implementation process. Since the entire process is done online, the individual student practices giving, receiving, and evaluating feedback from various sources on a variety of posted assignments. At the end of the process, students reflect on their progress and decide whether they need more instruction, practice, or feedback on their current goal, or re-evaluate whether it is time to set a new goal. At the end of the course, student responses to the goal-setting process were overwhelmingly positive, specifically due to the high level of autonomy, differentiation, and accountability the method afforded.

    Collaboration, Discussion, and Metacognition: Moodle

    Right down the hall, Evan Remley and Bob Stevenson co-teach an American Studies class of 45 students where they use many of the interactive features built into Moodle to cultivate collaboration and facilitate meaningful discussion among students. These features include forums, peer revision tools, blogs, wikis, and the other functions of the read-and-write Web application. With continual use and timelined access to the feedback cycle, teachers and students can reflect thoughtfully on their progress and set meaningful goals around content and processes. Most powerfully, Moodle’s 24/7 accessibility through email, apps, tablets, and smartphones helps students and their support networks take control of their own learning beyond the classroom. This powerful tool enables students to cultivate skills that, once mastered, they can use for a lifetime.

    Future Thinking, Risk-Taking, Coping with Failure and Collaboration with Experts: DropBox, CoolWIki, Online Databases, and Data from Expert Sites

    In a Bozeman, Montana, high school Lynn Powers is creating future thinkers engaged in the real work of adding and creating new knowledge in astrophysics. Students use CoolWiki and DropBox to share research, photos, and findings with professors and experts at CalTech and Harvard. They use archived data from two telescopes to determine if stars are being formed in NGC281, also known as the Pac-Man Nebula, and work with an expert at CalTech to learn to program in Python to analyze these data and draw conclusions. They presented their findings at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C. in early January. John Barell, author and expert on inquiry and problem-based 21st century learning ( said, “These students are on the frontiers of new knowledge…their work …contains elements that can be transferred to any classroom: reverence for and openness to making mistakes/‘failure’, which means we try and try, take some risks, fail sometimes, learn and improve.” These are soft skills that are crucial to any scientific endeavor.

    Global and Cultural Communication and Understanding: Google Drive, Picasa, Voicethread, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter

    The Center for Global Studies (CGS), a magnet school in Norwalk, Connecticut, under the directorship of Roz McCarthy, is focused on global understanding. Students at CGS are learning their second or third language and routinely communicate with their sister schools in Japan, China, and Arabic-speaking countries. They use Google Presentations to create projects, Picasa to share photos, Voicethread to allow a spoken exchange to be delivered in the target language, as well as Facebook and Twitter for social networking.

    Most projects are shared online with the sister schools and designed to demonstrate what it means to live in their respective countries . Some projects, like the Voicethreads, are collaboratively created with partners in the target culture. Once online sharing has occurred, there is often a Skype session where students can talk about the work. Speaking and communicating with other cultures requires a different set of norms; therefore students have an opportunity to learn what topics should and should not be discussed.

    Critical Thinking, Organization, Time Management, and Independent Thinking: Mentor Mob, Socrative, BlendSpace, Google Voice, Blogger, YouTube, and Teacher Tube

    MentorMob is an online playlist tool that is useful for teaching time management, personal organization, and independent thinking because kids can be given step-by-step guidance that can be accessed chronologically or randomly depending on the student’s individual need. Students can also be asked to create a MentorMob file for their own work, breaking it down into manageable chunks and creating the steps needed to complete a project.

    Michelle Luhtala, librarian at New Canaan High School in Connnecticut, uses MentorMob to assess research skills as high school juniors begin work on a research paper. Luhtala measures research skills through a 20-question pre-assessment on that students take on mobile technology (their own or library-owned). Each class’s overall performance on each question is compiled and published in MentorMob, and posted to the library’s instructional blog on Blogger, sorting the questions from lowest number of correct responses to highest.

    Teachers are also given individual student performance results in ranked order so they can quickly determine who might need the most support. Individual students receive their overall scores as well as the ability to self-remediate using MentorMob’s playlist. Here they can access a “step” for each pre-assessment question that links to a mini-instructional module explaining the correct response using Google Presentations, NCHS teacher-created YouTube videos, BlendSpace (another online playlist tool), Prezi (a presentation tool), and in one case, a simple screenshot. Students are also invited to text the library with their questions in Google Voice, which provides teachers with additional data to inform future instruction.

    Personal Goal-Setting: Naviance

    In Bridgeport, Connecticut, Diane Tung, Director of Instructional Technology and Student Assessment for the Diocese of Bridgeport, reports that Naviance is being piloted at the middle school level for student surveys and to help students write SMART goals. Naviance offers tools like the Gallup StrengthsExplorer that let students identify their strengths and talents, such as achieving, caring, competing, confidence, and relating, among others. Naviance helps match those students with college and career options, and it also offers strategies for applying them not only to school, but also to a future career and life.

    Personal Archiving, Prioritizing, and FIltering: e-Portfolios in Google Sites and Digication

    A crucial aspect of student success planning is teaching students to archive their work electronically so it can follow them as they move from school to school or change districts. At Nathan Hale High School in Moodus, Connecticut, Deborah Olsen-MacDonald, business education and finance technology teacher, teaches a class called Information Technology, primarily for freshmen. Our BIG P.A. is a project they created using Google Sites where each student creates a personal Web site to be used for collecting schoolwork, listing personal interests and hobbies, showing extracurricular activities, and reflecting on their growth over time and their work to fulfill the district’s learning expectations. Students continually add to the portfolio over the course of their high school careers. Then, when they become seniors, they take a course called “Senior Project” in which they use their portfolios to demonstrate their readiness to earn a high school diploma by showing their learning and growth over time.

    Accountability and Self-Monitoring: RubiStar and iRubrics

    Today’s students expect a rubric for each assignment and they know how to use them. A skill that doesn’t appear on a given rubric is, by default, not a skill worth worrying about. As such, teachers should focus on creating rubrics that assess not only content, grammar, usage, and mechanics, but will also explicitly assess soft skills. You can write your own or go to Web sites like RubiStar or iRubric (accessible through Google Apps for Education) to see how others assess these skills. Rubrics on these sites can be used as is or modified to suit your needs. You can also create and add your own rubrics to the shared database.

    Across our nation, state departments of education are creating new policies that recognize the importance of soft skills. In Connecticut, for example, students in grades 6-12 are required to file a personal student success plan made up of goals in social, emotional, physical, and academic growth.

    See the article online:

  • March: National Women’s History Month 2014

    The theme for National Women’s History Month this year is: Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment.  NASA is spotlighting women in STEM careers and has asked local clubs to highlight this locally.

    Several events are planned in and around Bozeman.  The bookclub selection and children’s storytime for the Bozeman Public Library this month have been chosen with this theme in mind.  A talk from SMAS will be given at ParkHaven on Tuesday March 11th.   The library’s Family Science night on Tuesday March 18th is being put on by the Bozeman High School Astronomy Club with several of the girls from the club conducting the activities.  On Friday March 28th, SMAS is having Dr. Sarah Jaeggli give an update on the IRIS mission for the winter lecture series to close out the month of activities.

  • “The Discovery of Saturn’s Largest Ring” lecture set for September’s SMAS meeting

    Dr. Anne Verbiscer
    Department of Astronomy
    University of Virginia

    Location: Hager Auditorium of the Museum of the Rockies
    Date: September 24th, 2010
    Time: 7:30, doors open at 7:00PM

    Abstract: Recent observations by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope revealed that Saturn has an enormous outer ring, by far the largest planetary ring in the Solar System. The ring is associated with one of Saturn’s dark, outer moons called Phoebe. The discovery of this huge ring appears to solve an age-old mystery in planetary science. Since its discovery in 1671, astronomers have puzzled over the odd, two-toned appearance of Saturn’s moon Iapetus. One side of the moon is as bright as snow, but the other is dark, like Phoebe. The new ring explains how dark material originally launched from Phoebe moves inward toward Iapetus, slamming one side of the icy moon like bugs on a windshield. Dr. Verbiscer will discuss how she and her team found the ‘Phoebe Ring’ and post-discovery observations.

    Presentation sponsored by:
    Museum of the Rockies, Montana Space Grant Consortium, and Southwest Montana Astronomical Society

  • NASA’s Mars Phoenix Mission P.I. to give special SMAS presentation on October 8th.


    Dr. Peter Smith of NASA’s Mars Phoenix Mission will deliver a lectured entitled “Phoenix in Winter Wonderland” during a special meeting of SMAS that will be held on October 8th. This event will be in the Hager Auditorium of the Museum of the Rockies, and will begin promptly at 7:00PM. This event is free and open to the public.

    Dr. Smith’s abstract for the presentation is as follows:

    Phoenix recently completed a five-month-long investigation of the Martian arctic and found water ice just beneath the dry surface soil. Comparing Antarctic dry valleys with the Martian polar plains leads to the conclusion that liquid water helped create the minerals in the soil. Snow has been observed falling from overlying clouds and frost is seen on the surface. Water is clearly part of the climate cycle and leads to the question: Is this a location where life is possible on Mars?