Amid the ongoing coronavirus situation, I hope you recall my math lesson from last month. If not, take a minute to go back and read the bit about exponential growth and be thankful that our efforts to control COVID-19 appear to be working, at least here in Utah. Rather than the predicted doubling every few days, we’ve managed to hold new confirmed cases to “only” around 100 or more per day, allowing some breathing space for our frontline caregivers and avoiding some of the most dire consequences.

At least so far.

This does not come without cost, but I will leave a discussion of the economic impact to the experts. I am already fully commiserating online and off with all of my teacher colleagues on the challenges of moving our carefully crafted curriculum online in just a matter of weeks. And I’ve been having one-on-one discussions with my students, especially graduates, about the challenges of making big decisions when everything seems so uncertain.

Instead, I’d like to take a moment and thank all of those moms and dads who are suddenly teachers’ aides for this vast experiment in “online” education. I put online in quotes because all of the learning is happening at home, face to face, even if the curriculum is delivered over the internet, and students are meeting with their teachers via Zoom.

Even in video conferencing with my own students, it is obvious that the real learning is happening between them and their roommates, spouses, siblings and parents, as they try to navigate coursework surrounded by housework, childcare and all the various other duties and distractions that are the hallmarks of home life.

It also means parents are suddenly getting a crash course in science and mathematics, among other things, as they help their young students navigate the new online regimen. And while your high school algebra teacher said you’d end up using this stuff in real life, I doubt this is exactly what she had in mind.

Thinking about all of this, I keep going back to my parents teaching me how to drive. Bear in mind this was an aspect of high school that, unlike physics or English, lacked any sort of dedicated curriculum at the time. My parents also had years of driving experience. What could possibly go wrong?

Turns out, just about everything. My mother, normally patient, started yelling “instructions” almost immediately, clinging to the safety handle for dear life. She nearly put a hole through the passenger-side floor using her imaginary brake pedal and refused to drive with me after one outing.

My dad stayed stoic throughout our first lesson together, calmly pointing out missed stop signs and yellow lights. After I nearly parked the car into the garage — literally — he quietly exited the vehicle, went inside, and phoned a local driving instructor to finish my schooling.

It wasn’t all their fault. It is remarkable how students, normally willing to take instruction from their teachers, become immediately immune to any suggestions from their parents.

While geometry proofs rarely end in a fender bender, it is a good thing you have those teachers showing up online to reinforce what you are doing at home. We all wish we could do more to help with the learning you and your new students are doing together. It would also be nice if all of this learning could foster some new family activities you can do from the comfort of your own home.

To that end, the Ott Planetarium is sponsoring a new series of Virtual Star Parties, the first on May 6 at 6 p.m. Hosted on the Ott Planetarium’s Facebook Page via Facebook Live, I’ll be giving a lesson on how to find and identify objects in the night sky, even when swamped by bright city lights. I’ll also showcase some of the free sky display tools available for your various devices that can help even a novice sky watcher tell the difference between Sirius and Saturn. Afterward, the Ott Planetarium staff and I will be on hand to answer any questions. Weather permitting, you can go outside and check out all of the cool stuff the night sky has to offer.

We hope this gives everyone an opportunity to learn something new. It might also give your new students a chance to teach you some of the things they’ve been learning.

And the best part? I can practically guarantee there will not be a single traffic accident.

Visit weber.edu/ottplanetarium for details.

Dr. John Armstrong is a Weber State University professor of physics. Twitter: @ByJCArmstrong

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