Professor Profile

Cool Professor: Smith College's Suzan Edwards

By Robin Lloyd
Science Editor Space.com
posted: 07:00 am ET
25 September 2000

   

Students in Suzan Edwards' astronomy classes at Smith College often find themselves watching the clock. In fact, one of their first assignments is not only to watch a clock, but to design one using a stick and solar shadows, to measure the sun's movement across it and to convert that into a time interval.

The clock project typifies Edwards' hands-on method of teaching, an approach she thinks is best for conveying to students the complexities of orbital mechanics and other celestial principles.

Suzan Edwards

Following a teaching theory called "inquiry-based learning," Edwards usually starts each class with a five-minute introduction and then sics students on projects and problems designed to help them learn astronomy by doing it and solving dilemmas.

"There is no time to go to sleep," she said. Students are constantly working with equipment -- telescopes, computers, physical models.

For this reason, Edwards is known across the United States as not just a popular astronomy professor but an innovative, widely read and effective one. Her students, both majors and non-majors, think she's the best in part because she avoids falling back on the crutch used by many professors -- her area of expertise. (Edwards is an accomplished researcher, having won a six-year award from the National Science Foundation for her research on star formation).

Adria Updike, Edwards' teaching assistant, has convinced a lot of first-year students at Smith to take Edwards' classes. "They marvel, as I did, at her enthusiasm," Updike said. "Most professors are really only interested in the small area of their field and are loathe to talk about other areas of study. Dr. Edwards is interested in every part of astronomy."

Edwards typically teaches two classes per semester, drawing students from Smith, a women's college in Western Massachusetts, and surrounding coed campuses as part of an academic sharing agreement. That cross-campus interaction helps students form a community that is helpful when taking on a challenging subject..

Edwards is published widely in top astronomy journals and as such manages a very busy schedule. Yet she makes it a point to find extra time for her students. Recently Edwards recently found time to help Updike find a way to juggle her course schedule, even though Edwards was up against a very tight publishing deadline.

"She took time away from her paper to spend an hour and a half on the phone with me before leaving for vacation," the student said.

The time theme carries into new classes that Edwards creates, including one called "Time," in which students learn about "naked-eye, pre-telescope astronomy."

The course was inspired by Dava Sobel's book Longitude, a historical look at how a British clockmaker solved the puzzle of determining east-west coordinates in the 18th century.

"I read that book and thought, 'For goodness sakes, why don't people know what some of these issues are?'" Edwards said.

So she set out to design a class that would resemble astronomy as taught in the 19th century, when Smith College opened. "[Professors of that era] had to teach navigation and how things move in the sky and old-fashioned astronomy. I tried to think of ways to make it fun and that's sort of what came out," Edwards said.

Why this approach? Force-feeding knowledge is less effective, she said. "You don't get to cover as much material with this approach," she added, "but on the other hand, I don't have any concerns because the quality of learning is so much higher when students are active learners."

Jules Gardner, another of EdwardsÕ students, agreed, saying the astronomer inspires students by attracting them to the material rather than threatening bad grades. "In her class, I felt that I owed it to myself to do as best as I could," Gardner said, "and I wanted very much to please her with my work."

Finally, college being college, there was one occasion during Edwards' stellar astronomy class that she noticed the students were a tad sluggish and possibly feeling the minutes slowly slide. So she "sent the TA out to get us all chocolate-covered espresso beans," says Edwards student Aletheia Donahue. "That was pretty distinctive -- because one almost never gets free chocolate-covered espresso beans."

Astronomy is not an easy subject to major in," Edwards said. There are fewer than 200 students majoring in astronomy nationwide at any one time, according to a 1997 American Institute of Physics report. Astronomy majors often double major in or take extensive coursework in physics, which requires extra dedication.

"It's not the sort of thing that hordes and hordes come into," Edwards said. "Physics already is pretty tough. On top of physics, you are taking a full set of astronomy classes, so it's tough. There is no doubt about it."

Edwards fosters camaraderie by helping to lead bimonthly astronomy luncheons where students and faculty gather to discuss the latest in the field. She also has helped a number of students get into Columbia University's "Universe Semester," an astronomy immersion program in Arizona open to all students.

Edwards is published widely in top astronomy journals and as such manages a very busy schedule. Yet she makes it a point to find extra time for her students. Recently Edwards recently found time to help Updike find a way to juggle her course schedule, even though Edwards was up against a very tight publishing deadline.

"She took time away from her paper to spend an hour and a half on the phone with me before leaving for vacation," the student said.

The time theme carries into new classes that Edwards creates, including one called "Time," in which students learn about "naked-eye, pre-telescope astronomy."

The course was inspired by Dava Sobel's book Longitude, a historical look at how a British clockmaker solved the puzzle of determining east-west coordinates in the 18th century.

"I read that book and thought, 'For goodness sakes, why don't people know what some of these issues are?'" Edwards said.

So she set out to design a class that would resemble astronomy as taught in the 19th century, when Smith College opened. "[Professors of that era] had to teach navigation and how things move in the sky and old-fashioned astronomy. I tried to think of ways to make it fun and that's sort of what came out," Edwards said.

Why this approach? Force-feeding knowledge is less effective, she said. "You don't get to cover as much material with this approach," she added, "but on the other hand, I don't have any concerns because the quality of learning is so much higher when students are active learners."

Jules Gardner, another of EdwardsÕ students, agreed, saying the astronomer inspires students by attracting them to the material rather than threatening bad grades. "In her class, I felt that I owed it to myself to do as best as I could," Gardner said, "and I wanted very much to please her with my work."