Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Ladder to the Stars

My first course in physics was Project Physics, Harvard's post-Sputnik curriculum project that emphasized  the history of physics and human interest throughout the course. I loved Project Physics. And on Sunday, September 28, 1980, Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage episode 1, "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean" aired for the first time. Cosmos grabbed me and did not let go.

I eventually became a high school physics teacher (the only career choice I specifically eliminated from my constellation of options while still in high school). And when California's state-mandated physics testing and reporting ended in the 2010s, I decided to weave Cosmos into my physics curriculum. 

By then, I had been implementing Skepticism in the Classroom, stand-alone lessons that could be dropped into the physics curriculum where appropriate. One theme of Cosmos was skepticism, so it aligned with my agenda. I wrote up question sets for each episode, and showed one episode the day after each unit test. I had to up the pace at the end of the year, and I showed episode 13, "Who Speak for Earth?" without a question set. Students were ready by then and remained engaged; it was like lifting hands off the moving bicycle's handlebars.

When Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey debuted in 2014, I added that series to my AP Physics 2 curriculum. AP Physics 1 got no Cosmos. But they did learn about waves and circuits back in those days.

In 1980's Cosmos, an existential threat that Sagan was overtly warning about was the nuclear arms race and the possibility of a life on Earth-ending nuclear war. In 2014's Cosmos, an existential threat that Ann Druyan (through Neil deGrasse Tyson) warned about was anthropogenic climate change.

The first episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds aired on March 9, 2020. Four days later, I taught the last regular, in-person class of my 35-year high school teaching career. Druyan's third season of Cosmos got lost in the pandemic. And National Geographic made the series difficult to find and watch (especially for those dozen or two of us that don't subscribe to cable or have a dish).

Developing question sets for each episode of Possible Worlds has been on my to-do list since 2020. Forty-two years after the debut of Cosmos, I have begun my work on Possible Worlds

All seasons of Cosmos bring context and humanity to the work done in science. I think it's a valuable resource to fold into course curriculum. It is not tightly-focused content exposition, as one might find in The Mechanical Universe. But that's a feature, not a bug.

One down; 12 to go before I have a full set for Possible Worlds (Cosmos season 3). In the meantime, question sets for seasons 1 and 2 are available at The Lessons of Phyz. 

Will there be a season 4 of Cosmos? Ann Druyan has one envisioned. Time will tell.

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