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Summer/Winter Schools


Saas-Fee Course 2015: From Protoplanetary Disks to Planet Formation

15-20 March 2015, Les Diablerets, Switzerland

This spring, 87 participants from around the world traveled to Switzerland to listen, learn and talk about planets and disks, and to socialize, and ski. The Saas-Fee course was organized by Swiss Society for Astrophysics and Astronomy. The NCCR PlanetS supported 38 participants to attend the school in the spring of 2015. In addition, the Academic Platform piloted educational interventions during the lectures. The three course lecturers (Prof. Philip J. Armitage, Prof. Wilhelm Kley, and Dr. Leonardo Testi) agreed to modify 10 minutes of their lecture and question time to accommodate two activities.

First, each lecturer chose a point during each lecture to pause for 5 minutes, during which the attendees (students, postdocs and scientists) spoke to one neighboring attendee about the contents of the lecture so far and any questions they might have. At the end of the 5 minutes, the lecturers continued with their slides. The goal of this lecture-pause was three-fold: (1) to give the audience a chance to ask a question without having to speak in front of the entire room, (2) to give attendees a chance to help each other with the lecture material, and (3) to provide an active (speaking) break in a passive learning situation.

Most audience members were supportive of this pause, and found it a useful tool for learning (as reported on a questionnaire). This novel structure for the lecture was introduced before the first lecture of the course, and then again at the time of the first pause (during the first lecture of Prof. Phil Armitage). Participants were told they should (1) speak with only one other person, and (2) discuss the material of the lecture so far and any questions they had. They were also told that the room should get loud with talking – an encouragement often needed whenever traditionally passive lecture formats are modified to include active student participation – and it did.

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Saas-Fee participants discussing a lecture.

The pauses continued to be loud, with most audience members actively speaking to a neighbor, gesturing at the presentation, writing in and pointing to their notes (see video here), for all 24 lectures of the school. Because this is a relatively small amount of time, and needs almost no extra work on the part of the presenter, we suggest it be tried in any kind of audience/presenter situation: classrooms, seminars, colloquia.

Second, the audience members were asked to anonymously fill out a feedback sheet at the end of each lecture, answering “What is still confusing to you at the end of this lecture?” The sheets were collected and given to the lecturers, so they could see how their lecture material was received and if there were any issues or confusion that more than a few people had after each lecture. This helped them make any changes they saw as necessary in future lectures, to correct any misconceptions or provide more information.

As might be expected, as the week progressed, less and less feedback sheets were returned. However, the lecturers all reported that they found the feedback useful. They also found a creative way to address some of the feedback questions – using the Facebook page that was created for the school to post a paper or a response.

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