Feb. 23rd, 2012

astra_nomer: (SCIENCE)
In teaching this graduate class, I'm beginning to become aware of all the skills I picked up in graduate school that weren't just material taught in class. For instance, I've been assigning one computationally oriented problem per problem set. But then I realized that they couldn't figure out how to interpolate between two points, something I see as being so basic and second nature I don't even think about it any more. This has caused some grumbling among students, particularly the ones who don't understand why I'd be trying to get them to learn computational skills and not just focusing on the subject material.

So I've come to the conclusion that I'm training them to shave yaks.

If you don't know the yak-shaving analogy, it goes something like this for astronomer.
You've taken some photometric data at a telescope on some object (star, galaxy, planet, quasar, etc.). You look in the literature, and you see that similar observations have been made on that same object over time, and you get the idea that maybe the source has been varying over time. But the observations have been done at different telescopes, and not all of them have used the same photometric filters you have. But if you know the passbands, you can calibrate the photometry to a standard set of filters. Except for this one set of observations, so you look up their reference for their filters and the transmission functions are indeed published -- tattooed on the side of yak. So there you are shaving a yak so that somewhere down the line you can do real science.

These first year students? They wouldn't be able to get to the first step in this process. It's a matter both of unfamiliarity with the subject matter, but also being unfamiliar with the whole problem-solving process that will get them to an answer. So while I might complain about spending my time yak-shaving, that's only because I already know how to find, herd, and wrangle the yaks already.

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