Marianne Takamiya says astronomy lends itself well to online instruction

Marianne Takamiya’s expansive style of teaching has allowed her to keep communication channels open with students in order to continue delivering stellar astronomy instruction despite restrictive covid guidelines.

By Emily Burkhart.

Marianne Takamiya
Marianne Takamiya

When courses went online last spring, Marianne Takamiya, an astronomy professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, hoped the switch would be a short-lived inconvenience. But with the fall semester approaching and no end in sight to the covid restrictions, Takamiya grabbed the bull by the horns. “I know it’s not the best, but we had to make lemonade out of lemons, right? Let’s just do this thing from the ground up,” she says of her approach to handling the switch to long-term online instruction.

Despite initial trepidations, Takamiya’s expansive style of teaching has allowed her to keep communication channels open with students in order to continue delivering stellar astronomy instruction.

The astronomer, whose own research focuses on the evolution of galaxies, grew up in Chile and received her bachelor of science and first master of science in astronomy from Universidad de Chile before receiving a second master’s degree and her doctor of philosophy from the University of Chicago.

Initially, the astronomer came to Hawaiʻi to work at the Gemini observatory before pursuing postdoctoral work at UH Hilo, where she is now entering her 16th year, her fifth as a professor.

“In the astronomy community, we’ve been using Zoom for quite some time,” she says, noting that astronomy is a field familiar with remote engagement. She welcomes the experimentation and student feedback with the new changes in teaching; she switched to the gaming platform Discord, which is more interactive than Zoom, at the behest of her students in a course on principles of astronomy last semester.

Throughout the transition, she has managed to maintain a hands-on approach emphasizing critical thinking despite the new covid restrictions.

“I’m going to teach you how to fish, not give you the fish, right?” says Takamiya of her teaching style. “Nobody learns by observation alone. I think there is this perception that science is this method where you simply go from A to B. It’s not like that. It’s more chaotic, it’s more creative. If you don’t try, and burn your fingers, you’re not making progress. One of the reasons students at UH Hilo have to take some sort of science is (to learn) critical thinking. We give you a swiss army knife and we ask you to build a boat.”

Providing tools rather than answers has not stopped in Takamiya’s classes just because there is a new reliance on simulative modes of teaching. “There are an infinite number of tools out there. We’re getting our students to understand real-life scenarios with our simulative online tools. I think astronomy lends itself well to that.”

Takamiya is using Stellarium, an open source planetarium free to download to anyone’s computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what is seen with the naked eye, binoculars, or a telescope. “Stellarium is super cool,” she says. “It’s a simulator of the sky, like having your own planetarium.” The software has been integral in Takamiya’s recent classes. She went above and beyond the content offered by the platform by creating her own to better meet student needs. A “highfalutin spreadsheet,” as she terms it, has allowed her students to track the movement of Jupiter’s moons.

A screenshot of earth with planets above.
Stellarium is an open source planetarium free to download to anyone’s computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what is seen with the naked eye, binoculars, or a telescope.

“Everything that we do at the end of the day is repetition, to solve problems more efficiently,” she says of the devil in astronomy’s details. “It’s neat that my students live the same experience as professional astronomers are living. Different problems, but the same physics.”

Last spring, Takamiya’s computational lab students also benefitted from her determination that their real-world experience not be hampered by virtual learning. She held “hackathons,” or remote collaborations, for the budding programmers who often worked at different times of the day, similar to how many of today’s professionals work.

Her non-lab courses this semester show an emphasis on student-centered learning, where a majority of class is spent in breakout rooms where students work together to solve problems and answer each other’s questions.

“In an online platform, students are paired with students they might have nothing in common with, and suddenly they are buddies,” Takamiya says of some of the unexpected benefits of online instruction. “It’s been a very interesting social experiment. Some students that were never social face-to-face (become) very social through the internet, so that’s wonderful.”

Part of her strategy has involved addressing the many new struggles students face, like isolation or having to move back home. She strives to maintain the classroom community as much as possible, holding classes often and synchronously, and checking in on her students who went home to places like New York, India, and Norway. “I thought that seeing each other often would ensure that we wouldn’t feel so lonely, that we would at least connect this way,” she says.

Direct engagement with equipment and gathering for labs is usually a part of astronomy curricula. However, for students who have moved home, Takamiya has worked with her department to come up with creative solutions. For example, students won’t be penalized for not using the telescopes. They will graduate on time, and they have a standing invitation from the department so that when things return to normal, they can visit astronomy facilities on Maunakea.

Thanks to the university’s in-person allowances for certain lab courses and extra budgeting for cleaning materials and personal protective equipment, Takamiya does hope to get four students from a general astronomy lab this semester out into the field with socially-distanced, hands-on telescope instruction. She notes that she will be keeping an eye on COVID-19 case numbers in Hilo, and the in-person portion of the lab will be on a volunteer basis.

The astronomy professor notes that “there are a lot of activities we can do online. I observed remotely at the beginning of this semester with one of my students, (and) I can do that from my home. It’s not the same, so that’s why we have our small telescope that students can tinker with it. That’s really what we want to teach them, how everything works on a mini scale, so they are trained well.”

Though she is quite humble about her efforts, the passion Takamiya has for her craft has not been diminished by the transition to online education. The new strategies she has taken up have modeled perseverance while steering students through this uncertain time with an inclusive, inspiring, and practical educative experience.


Story by Emily Burkhart, a senior double majoring in English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UH Hilo.

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