Unique PhD collaboration with a focus on Astronomy from two different perspectives

Tasis Kapodistrias and Giacomo Bortolini have been working together since September 2022 in a new paired-PhD project based on representation in Astronomy higher education. By working and learning from each other, they gain invaluable experience for their future careers.

Tasis Kapodistrias (Department of Teaching and Learning) and Giacomo Bortolini (Department of Astro
From left: Tasis Kapodistrias (Department of Teaching and Learning) and Giacomo Bortolini (Department of Astronomy). Photo: Private.

Tasis Kapodistrias comes from the island of Zakynthos in Greece, and has also lived and worked for several years in Athens. He has a Bachelor degree in Physics, Master in Science Education, and has worked several years as a physics teacher in Upper Secondary Education. Giacomo Bortolini comes from Pisa in Italy. He had just finished his Bachelor and Master degree in Astronomy, when he saw the advertisement for Stockholm University and decided to apply for the position.

Within the paired-PhD project Tasis and Giacomo first and foremost have their own main areas that they are responsible for. Tasis’ main focus is to investigate how representations are constructed in astronomy, and how they are used in its teaching and learning. Giacomo has a more astronomical perspective and he will investigate the physics of galaxies and try to gain a better understanding of how galaxies form and evolve over cosmic time. In addition to this, they also have a part that they investigate together.


Two main tracks for working together

– The first months we mostly focused on getting our own projects in order, say Tasis and Giacomo. But now we have had time to think about what we can do together as well. Hopefully this will result in at least two articles that focus on both our perspectives of Astronomy. A collaboration like this, at PhD level, is something very new and innovative.

– The first idea we have is to investigate astronomical images that are commonly used in social media, says Tasis. How are these visualized, and what kind of knowledge do people take from looking at the images? How do people comment on the pictures? Do they think it's real? Do they understand what they see?

– The second idea is to examine how the images, or representations, are produced, Giacomo continues. Thanks to my knowledge of the content of the images and how they are produced, together with Tasis’ competence in what is important to focus on in order to provide the right knowledge - we believe that together we can propose and implement improvements to how knowledge in astronomy is visualized. We would like to show something new - and tell people about astronomy in a more intuitive way.


Have a lot to learn from each other

– Even though we have just started working together, Tasis has helped me to reflect and think about things that I´ve never thought about before, says Giacomo. He asks questions and wants me to explain things that I usually just do without really thinking about why. To be a good scientist, you also need to be able to teach. It´s often taken for granted that just because you know things, you can also teach about it. But it's not true. Teaching is hard, and something you have to learn and practice doing.

– For me, it's absolutely fantastic to get access and to see what science is doing, Tasis adds. It’s common at the school level, to have a picture of the scientific method that is very linear and oversimplified. As science education researchers, we know that this is not really true. And now when I get to see it from the inside – I can absolutely confirm that. Being able to see and follow the complexity of how science is done gives me "a-hell-of-a-lot" of knowledge.

– When the PhD positions were advertised and we read about the opportunity to work together, we thought that part sounded "cool". But we never thought we would learn THIS much. This project is SO MUCH COOLER than we dared to hope for, Tasis and Giacomo state.


Wants the journey to be more pleasant

The main purpose of the entire pair-PhD project is to develop astronomy learning at the university. So far, research on learning in astronomy has mostly dealt with content at the school level, such as students' understanding of the solar system, seasons, phases of the moon, and so on. Now we want to raise it to another level and attract more people to study at a higher level.

– To become a good astronomer, you must be able to use representations and data around astronomy in a fluent way, says Tasis and Giacomo. You must also be able to switch between different kinds of content and understand the connection between the different representations, and so forth.

– The problem today is that most of the representations that are used for teaching are not adapted for beginners. They are produced for those who already know astronomy. What we want to achieve is to meet the learners where they are - and gradually take their knowledge to the next level.

– Within the discipline of astronomy, there are many reasons why representations were made to look and convey knowledge in a certain way. And of course, it is impossible to go back in time and change how these representations came to be so important for astronomy, as they are today. We are not trying to do that. If someone is to become an astronomer today, they would have to become fluent and comfortable with all those important astronomical representations (like the HR diagram below). They have to be second nature for them.

– By improving and developing the materials that are used for teaching “an astronomer-to-be”, we hope to make the journey towards a fully-fledged astronomer more pleasant and motivating. It´s to difficult for beginners to feel comfortable with the discipline of astronomy right away. 

Illustration H-R diagram

This is an example of a very famous representation in astronomy, that gives us valuable information such as a star’s age, its brightness, its surface temperature.

Illustration H-R diagram (239 Kb)