Having not taught much astronomy, I can say that I am wholly unaware of some difficulties I should expect students to have, but I am learning.

Here are things I learned today about student thinking about east and west.

Several students discussed that if you begin heading east (along the equator for example), eventually you’ll be heading west again, like, for example, once you’ve gone half way around.

Several students also said things consistent with the idea that east is toward your right (no matter where you are looking). For example, a student said that they saw the crescent moon last night in the eastern sky last night. When I asked how they knew this, they said because it was to their right.

Several students also said things consistent with east is toward right on a drawing (no matter the perspective of drawing). We have been making various drawings of sun and earth, trying to make sense of and gather data about, and it is common to equate right-ward as east-ward, even if in the drawing it might be inward toward the center of the earth.

I spent a fair amount of time talking with a colleague about this one after class, and I’ve been thinking about it. We touched upon many things such maps, compasses, geo-political distinctions, east/west vs north south, spherical coordinates and geometry, non-cartesian unit vector, direction vs. location (or region), etc. I promise to write more about my thinking and our conversation, but I just wanted to quickly get this one out there.

What do people think?

1. March 26, 2012 9:52 pm

Growing up, we lived on 64W, west of Raleigh. My sister once drove for an hour the wrong way trying to get home – not realizing that when you were west of home, you should take 64E. Somehow that seems related.

Also weird to me is that I never mix up N and S, but having moved to the west coast, I ALWAYS mix up E and W. Not just a little bit. It feels like left and right that way (we never mix-up up and down, but frequently confuse left and right). I think I saw Dehaene say something about this once – mirror images can pass for normal, but up/down inversions can’t.

Plus, the mid-west is back east now. And the Far East is to my west.

2. March 26, 2012 10:01 pm

I highly recommend the book “Heavenly Errors” by Neil Comins for a more in depth look at student misconceptions in astronomy.