Samples of In-Class Activities

Here are a variety of in-class activities I've used in my classes; these are mostly from Introduction to Astronomy and Revolutions in Physics at Carleton as I tend to use less formal, structured activities in my upper-level classes in favor of discussions.

Phases of the Moon
This activity comes early in Intro Astronomy. Each student gets a small foam ball and a skewer to poke through the ball. This forms a "moon ball", essentially a Moon-on-a-stick. A lamp in the mfront of the room serves as the Sun. Before starting the activity, I usually lead them through the first lunar phase.
I've found this to be a fantastic way to teach lunar phases as many students cannot visualize the motions right away in a class like this. Credit goes to the Astronomy lab manual at CU-Boulder, to which many, many people have contributed.
Data, Theory, or Opinion?
This activity goes with our class about the nature of science. (I've used it in both Intro Astro and Revolutions, as well as some other short classes.) The purpose is pretty straight-forward: to get students thinking about the difference between a statement of data, one that's a theory, and (especially) one that's purely opinion. It sounds easy, but a lot of "data" statements can also be read as theory! (Opinion statments tend to stand out, once you're primed to identify them as such.)
Changing Conditions
This activity is part of two days spent on planet formation. This activity goes with the first day and is forcused on more or less factual information, but by way of asking how the model predicts the solar system would look different if some formation conditions were different.
Cartooning Planet Formation
This may be my favorite activity. It again gets students actively thinking about the planet formation process, but this time in a more creative form. Students often come up with really interesting ways of displaying the steps and clever analogies. I always supply large sheets of paper and colored pencils, so they have a lot of fun, too.
Geology Concept Map
An earlier edition of my favorite textbook, The Cosmic Perspective had a nice concept map relating the formation properties of terrestrial worlds to their geologic processes. It used this map as a guide through much of the chapter on planetary geology. Sadly, it's gone, now. So I decided to ask the students in my class to re-make it with some guidance.
I should note that this assignment didn't go splendidly in all regards. I gave students an example of how to connect a formation property (spin) to wind-speed and then to erosion, but a few groups got the wrong idea and didn't make so much a map as a series of chains. They still got a lot of the beenfit, I think, but they lost the inter-connections. I'm trying to head that off next time.
Comets
This is an example of activity I'm not very happy with right now. It involves a lot of number crunching (as well as some analysis on page 2) that is OK for learning, but not, I think, great. This activity goes with the day spent on comets and asteroids and I'd love to come up with a better idea for an activity or a way to adjust this one to be more interesting and to hit on some higher intellectual skills. (If you, dear reader, have any suggestions, please let me know!)
What are the Odds?
When we get to meteors, it gets a little tough to come up with interesting activities, so I use this as a chance to explore a little probability theory. (Sometime they should all see, anyway.) The idea for this came from my real experience after some researchers claimed a famous plane crash had been brought down by meteor strike. They claimed that the odds of it happening to some plane in 20 years was around 20%. I scratched out my own calculation and got, well, rather lower odds. (Done far less carefully, I should add. But still, it was an easy way to do a quick test on the plausibility and students should learn to do such quick "sniff tests".)
Dead Star Resumes
One year my students voted to cover black holes and other dead stars as part of our "Students Choose" days. It's difficult to do a lot of activities with that topic because the material underpinning black holes is pretty advanced and because I don't cover a lot of material that sets up stellar graveyards. So I came up with this and am actually fairly pleased with the results. The goal is for students to examine one type of stellar remenant from birth to death. The resume makes it playful and students got quite creative with how they structured their submissions. I quite enjoyed reading them, as I usually do with this sort of creative work.

Weiss John