Inclusive Education and Research in Astronomy

Below is the first in a series of posts by participants in the Summer 2020 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight to the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship. 

Yuzhe Song is a physics PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center. His research mainly focuses on gamma-ray astrophysics. His current work  combining the high-energy phenomenon with stellar physics where he searches for gamma-ray emissions from stellar mass objects and explains the emission mechanism. He is also an adjunct lecturer at the Department of Earth & Physical Sciences teaching Introductory Astronomy as part of the General Education curriculum.

Inclusive Education and Research in Astronomy by Yuzhe Song

The astronomy and astrophysics research team across all of CUNY has an extremely strong sense of community. The AstroCom NYC program, participated in by all CUNY astrophysics faculty, does its best to be inclusive and supportive of underrepresented groups of students, helping with their coursework, early stage research and career development. Being part of this inspiring community, the principles of inclusivity and openness have been deeply rooted inside of me. That is why I chose to apply for the Open Pedagogy Fellowship. 

Astronomy, an openly-licensed textbook available through OpenStax.

Joining the Fellowship is a great opportunity to build upon these principles, and to start doing the same for my students. It is the opportunity to look at my existing course setup and try to make it openly accessible, inclusive and free. I believe that this should especially be the case for General Education curriculum, which is part of the astronomy course that I teach.

Prior to this experience, I already knew that astronomy communities all over the world have been trying their best to provide Open Educational Resources (OER). NASA has been using its real data releases to build experiments and laboratories; University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Gettysburg College have both developed tools, demonstrations, simulations and software that are beneficial to students and educators. I have used these in my classes already, and there are countless YouTube videos from outreach programs and other astronomers that can also be helpful as OER.

Astronomy: A Beginner’s Guide to the Universe, an expensive textbook that in all of my sessions only a handful of students were able to purchase.

Traditionally, these resources are passed on from one instructor to another. The fellowship, however, helped to point out where to search for materials suitable for my own courses – and in return, I can share these resources and the methods with other instructors in need. One of the most valuable results was that I found a very reliable OER textbook. It is compatible with my course and can substitute the existing expensive textbook. I have already shared the materials I discovered with my peers at York College, and I’m hoping these, too, can be widely re-circulated within our community.

I also created a course website on CUNY Academic Commons where the course schedules, textbook, lecture notes and slides were posted and easy to access. With the increasing workload on Blackboard and its instability from time to time, this website should make the lives of the students easier: an all-in-one site that doesn’t require a login in order to browse freely. Due to the limitations of the CUNY Academic Commons, assignments and tests are still given and collected through Blackboard.

The discussions among the Fellows about openness and inclusivity were insightful. It was brought to my mind that the concept of inclusivity is not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation or class, but also includes students’ socioeconomic status, family status and so much more. Being educators, it is important to truly take all the effort to make sure that the course materials can be received equally regardless of any of the status of the students. These new perspectives on open pedagogy guided me and helped to better prepare for the upcoming online semester. 

Now that the first month of the new fully online fall semester is finished, along with all the improvements brought by participating in the Fellowship, it still seems challenging with all the preparation over summer and the experience from the spring. On the one hand, most of the students find it easy to navigate through the course website better than other Blackboard based courses. The entirely free syllabus without textbook cost, lab fee or any materials fee – that saves them hundreds of dollars – has been a great relief to them.

Technology issues still exist, and still are one of the major barriers to the seamless delivery of lectures and materials. Some students still don’t have a computer to work with and have to rely on their phone to finish all the work, which is hard: some don’t have their mics or cameras working for the class and cannot interact with me or other students. And some techno-challenged students even have trouble navigating through Blackboard, the course website, Zoom or Slack for communication. Some students have to take care of their kids at home at the same time as class, which significantly reduces their ability to focus.

It is no doubt that there will be an ongoing effort to achieve complete openness, equality and inclusivity in education, more so in the unprecedented world that we’re in right now. But this is the important work to prepare everyone to face the world through an open education. I will keep working on utilizing what I have learnt from the Fellowship and beyond to achieve this goal, and also do my best to bring more equality and openness to education and research in astronomy. 

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is currently the Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library. They're also proud to serve on the University LGBTQ Council, and as a board member of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies.