The monks astronomer Chris Impey teaches in India know little science or math but embody a curiosity for learning and a patience for tasks that is often lacking among students in his University of Arizona classes.
They count grains of sand to estimate the mass of the universe and painstakingly arrange 10,000 poker chips to demonstrate how gravity creates clusters of galaxies.
“Humble Before the Void,” Impey’s recently published book, details his experience bringing low-tech educational tools to India, where he has traveled in each of the past six years to teach cosmology in the Science for Monks leadership academy set up by the Dalai Lama.
It is a style of active learning that Impey and colleagues at the UA are trying to bring to undergraduate education in astronomy and other physical sciences — a “flip” of the longstanding approach where the brilliant professor lectures to eager acolytes.
Losing the lecture seems almost cruel in Impey’s case. He is the “go-to” speaker for the University of Arizona College of Science. His public lectures, filled with images captured by colleagues, always attract crowds.
A natural showman who has honed a knack for interpreting science to the general public through a series of popular science books and articles, Impey is the kind of speaker you would call spellbinding.
Problem is, says Impey, casting spells isn’t teaching.
“I just faced the reality some years ago of what all the research says. You know, scientists are supposed to be data-driven, and the data speaks very loudly …. even if you speak to a very highly motivated audience for more than 10 or 15 minutes, their attention span drops to half.
“The notion that you can give a spellbinding 40- or 50-minute lecture is flawed. It is deeply flawed.”
Neuroscientist Gail Burd, who taught the monks biology in that first academy, said Impey is a model for what should be happening in the university’s classrooms.
Burd, vice provost for academic affairs at UA, said it boils down to a simple question: “Do you want the students to be entertained or to really learn the material?
“All the evidence points to the fact that students need to be engaged and fully understand the concepts instead of memorizing a bunch of facts.”
One way to relegate lectures to their background role is to put them online, something Impey has done for his Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), a free no-credit course that has enrolled more than 15,000 students in over 100 countries.
His MOOC is not a model for active learning, Impey said, but it could be.
Improvements are coming, courtesy of a funding windfall from an unexpected place. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently named Impey an HHMI Professor and awarded him $200,000 a year for the next five years to improve teaching in the sciences using online resources.
Impey said that will enable him to fund more computer and technical help in developing the MOOC into a more interactive and engaging site — and in making it an adjunct to the general astronomy course he teaches.
“It’s exciting to me because it’s a lot of money — a million dollars — and it’s all devoted to improving undergraduate education. My project really involved looking at large online astronomy classes or science classes in general and figuring out how to do better with purely online learning.
“I think the conventional wisdom is that the disembodied form is inferior. We’re going to make them more rich and more interactive.”
Geoscientist Ariel Anbar of Arizona State University, said MOOCs lack a crucial ingredient — “skin in the game.” Students who pony up a fee and get a grade are more likely to take it seriously — and more likely to learn something, he said.
Anbar, a biogeochemist with the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration, developed an online course called HabWorlds, in which students use simulations to find and characterize the evolutionary path of a habitable exoplanet.
He joined Impey this year as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. He plans to use his $1 million award to further develop an introductory course in geosciences called Virtual Field Trip.
There is no substitute for classroom interaction, Anbar said, “but the reality is that introductory courses are hundreds of students in a lecture hall.”
Online teaching, properly designed, can do better than that, he said.
A foray into fiction
Impey has always used a variety of approaches to spreading scientific knowledge.
You can read his explanations of the singularity, the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe in his textbooks, his popular science books, his account of teaching the concepts to the monks and, now, in a novel.
Earlier this year, he branched into science fiction. In “Shadow World,” his characters debate cosmological concepts between the sex scenes and the knife fights.
For him, fiction is a way of talking about scientific concepts “where it’s not clunky and pedagogical and instructional.”
“‘Humble Before the Void,’ was also a departure from his more straightforward popular science writing. His editor encouraged him to personalize the trip.
The reader learns a little bit about Impey, who had recently divorced and was traveling with his then-teenage son, Paul.
Impey is a teacher, a University Distinguished Professor, the deputy head of the UA astronomy department, a speaker who delivers about 20 lectures a year, a research astronomer interested in super-massive black holes and exoplanets, an author, a creator of websites on music and films, a curriculum developer.
He is a youthful 58, with a runner’s body and a hipster look in jeans, plaid shirts and a thin mustache.
His office walls are plastered with cosmological images and his shelves are filled with whimsical mementos of his travels across the globe.
Wearying pursuit of funding
In recurring passages in “Humble Before the Void,” Impey contrasts his busy Western life with that of the exiled Tibetan monks in their spartan refuge in the foothills of the Himalayas.
They practice detachment from the world and its many manifestations, which is appealing to Impey.
“Separation from my normal work life is leading me to question things I rarely question,” he writes.
Impey is at the top of his profession, with smart colleagues and excellent students. But he’s also “often enmeshed with administrative work and institutional bureaucracy. There’s the relentless chase for research funding. It wears me down.”
He imagines a simpler approach, like Socrates wandering about Athens or the Buddha himself. You root for him to chuck it all, or at least part of it, but that’s not where the narrative arc takes us.
Impey returned to India to teach the monks five more times after the events described in “Humble Before the Void.” He continued to enjoy the respite from his busy life, but he continues to make his busy life busier.
“I guess it would be more positive if it had a more permeating effect on my life but I think it did, and does, affect me. I don’t stress about a set of things that I used to stress about.
“I guess the Buddhist takeaway — that I did take away — is that you don’t have to be attached to everything equally, and some things you just shouldn’t be attached to at all because they’re just stressful and in the end, it doesn’t matter.”
Impey recently spent six weeks as a “distinguished visiting astronomer” at the Australian National Observatory, where his project to better measure the mass of supermassive black holes may not bear fruit for years to come.
The research matters to him, but he does less of it every year.
His recent publications in refereed journals are about pedagogy, not astronomy. “I recognize that the white heat of my research career is waning,” he said.
Asked to describe himself without the litany of titles that usually accompany his name, he says: “I’m an educator.”