Faculty Experiences - Jonathan Aurnou

Jonathan Aurnou - photoJONATHAN AURNOU

Earth and Space Sciences

Interview Topics

What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

How could the University better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?


Teaching the fundamental ideas

Show what you are talking about

tudent Participation



PowerPoint (software)

Class web site

iMovie (software)

Internet resources

Teaching the Fundamentals with Live Demonstration

I don’t believe in just lecturing and showing my students some slides of how things occur. If it is possible I want to show the phenomena actually occurring or at least I want to show an analog to that process.

What matters most to me in my teaching is getting across the fundamental ideas that need to be understood. When I am teaching a General Education class for non-science majors, I really try to get through the basic ideas of what science is and how we answer critical questions by applying the scientific method. Those are the fundamentals for me. I believe that if I can get across the fundamental ideas people are less likely to forget them because they are fundamental. I have to remind myself about the fundamentals because when I am excited about a topic, I can get carried away and start elaborating on details that are too complex. If I do get too complex, the class will get really quiet meaning that the students are getting confused. At this point I know I have to return to the fundamental concepts. If students grasp the fundamentals, they should be able to move forward.

I really believe -- especially with the non-science majors -- in doing demonstrations to get my ideas across to my students. Whenever possible I try to do demonstrations live in class. I bring a digital video camera to a large lecture hall; I attach it to the auxiliary jack. I set up the camera just before class and then I can do a small-scale, bowl-size experiment during lecture and have it projected 20 feet wide by 12 feet high onto the screen for the whole class to see. I can get a lot across just by doing these experience-based, little demos in class. I notice that students perk up when I do these demos because they find it fun to watch their professor doing real experiments. They can see what happens when the demos work and when they do not work. The class actually loves it when the demos don’t work because I have to go back and explain in detail what was supposed to happen and why. So they feel that they actually get more when the demo does not work.

I don’t believe in just lecturing and showing my students some slides of how phenomena occur. If it is possible I want to show the phenomena actually occurring or at least I want to show an analog to that process. For instance I made a movie that shows thermal convection in a beaker of dyed water which is an analog of convective motion in the earth's oceans and atmosphere. I use household products to show analog processes of many large-scale physical phenomena in and around the oceans. People can recreate most of these phenomena in the kitchen if they are creative enough. Using household products to explain these processes makes students feel more connected to what they are watching and learning because they can see that large-scale physical phenomena and processes are not that different from what happens in a smaller setting in their kitchens.

Along the line of getting students connected with the topic I am teaching, I like to do demonstrations that involve students. For instance, when I am lecturing on waves, I get the class of approximately 200 students to do the human “wave” which gets them moving and staying awake. We alter the frequency and the wavelength to see how those factors affect the wave speed, that is, how fast the wave moves across the room. Students find this exciting because they get a chance to take part in the demo. Getting students to participate in the lecture is important especially in a large lecture class where most of the students are taking the course to get the “science requirement out of the way” so to speak.

This past year I tried something new. I taped the demos ahead of time in my lab which were then embedded into my PowerPoint lecture. I found that there are benefits in doing this because I could replay the digital movies a few times to clarify a point to the class. This would not be possible in a live demonstration because I could only do the experiment once. In either case, I still believe that I should do it “live” because students got really excited when I do these demos in class, whereas having them only watch movies does not generate the same excitement. In the future I would like to combine live demonstrations and movies. I can use the movies to back up the demonstrations. For instance, after I am done with a demonstration, I can still show the movie clips multiple times to clarify my point. I would also like to build a gallery of movie clips that I have made and post them online before the class starts. If I add good annotations to these movies, students will be able to read them in advance and get the basic ideas they are about to hear in the lecture. Hopefully that will get them interested in the lecture.

After seeing how successful the movie clips of demos work during lectures, I am now collaborating with a friend of mine – Bill Church, a physics teacher in Bethlehem, New Hampshire -- and his senior physics students to create stop-action animation of oceanic processes. There is something really clear about stop-action animation because you are “faking” every step so we end up with an animated schematic. Right now two of his students are working on a movie showing how tides are generated. The animation is done in iMovie so I will be able to add text and annotation. Annotated stop-action animation is a great way to explain difficult concepts s uch as the formation of ocean tides and the Coriolis effect. A couple of sufficiently detailed simple movies would go along way in explaining these phenomena.

I personally think students get more out of the course if they come to the lecture but I don’t require attendance. For this reason, I put as much course materials as I can on the class web site. I also use the Internet as a resource in preparing my lecture and I pull images from the web to be included in my lecture presentations, I make a point of citing the URL of the websites in my PowerPoint slides because I want students to look them up and visit the websites. In the future, I would like to make more extensive use of the web in my teaching. For instance I would tie in the labs with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website. There is data available on the web that students could use in their labs.

I know my students love the fact that I put course materials on the web because if I do not get the chance to put my lecture online before the class, students will ask me about it. Whenever possible I try to post my lectures online before I teach the class because it is more convenient for students if they can print out the PowerPoint slides as notes and annotate them during lectures. This way they don’t have to scribble madly to write down everything I say because they already have the PowerPoint slides that I am showing on the screen They can follow the lecture better and think about the topic at hand.

Oral Interview, February 2005