Sunday, August 22, 2010

Preparing to teach

I'm preparing to teach my first introductory astronomy course.  During my 9 hour plane ride back to the states yesterday, I worked on outlining the topics I want to cover during the course.

One of my teaching resources contains a list of topics students expect to be covered in an introductory astronomy course, many of which are not covered in most courses and texts.  I figure that I will ask my students what they expect to be covered, and if there is something both popular and appropriate, I'll be sure to work it in somehow.

But I also thought I'd throw open the question to you: What topics would you hope would to be covered in an astronomy course that often are not?  I put a poll on the side of this page.  If your favorite answer is not listed, feel free to add it to the comments below. In case you are unfamiliar with topics often covered, here's a collection of astronomy course syllabi collected by Reggie Hudson at Eckerd College


  1. Anonymous10:17 AM

    basics of using a telescope, and imaging. ie realising that what Hubble gets is different to what we get.

  2. All I want to say is : don't cover too much! You should decide what you want to get out of the course. If you want to do a "fact-based" survey course where students will memorize a few things about each topic, then you can cover a lot. But if you want them to get a deeper understanding of how and why things work, and to be able to apply the knowledge to situations more than remembering just what you told them, you really have to limit the number of topics you teach. Otherwise, the students will be mystified by the huge number of topics.

    For instance, if you're going to teach the "night sky" -- things like using the celestial sphere to predict where things will rise and set, where things will be circumpolar, as well as things like the phases of the moon and (perhaps) the seasons, spend a fifth of the course on this. I eventually dropped that out of the intro astronomy courses I taught (although it stayed in the lab), but it was the hardest thing we did all semester. Visualizing in 3d is not easy, and going from the page drawings of the celestial sphere to what you'll see in the sky is new and difficult for students. You can deliver the material in just 2-3 lectures, but spend much more time on it than that if you really want the students to digest it and have some hope of using it.

    The temptation is always to cover a lot, and there's a lot out there that can be covered. The beauty of the introductory astronomy course is that by and large it's not used as a foundation course for later courses. As such, there's nothing you HAVE to cover. The real goal of the course is for students to understand something about scientific reasoning, and something about that astronomy. Choose what you're most excited about, and what you think the students will be most interested in, to cover, and you will serve them better than trying to be comprehensive.

    (This also means you have to be careful with pretty much every textbook out there, as they all have huge amounts of topics, and usually too many details about every topic.)

  3. Matt Wood1:14 PM

    Skepticism (astrology, etc.) :-)

  4. Oh boy where to start. I remember my first every introduction to astronomy course and how it was plain and boring and did not spark any inspiration whatsoever. What made it plain and boring was cold hard astronomy without much emphasis on the big picture. Years down the line when I actually realized how important, magnificent and awe-inspiring the universe really is, I wished someone had lit that fire in me during college.
    Give them the big picture. I can guarantee you that everyone in your class takes Space and related activities and ideas for granted. Rockets, shuttles, big telescopes, gravity are usual and whatever. Which is why they will miss the point. Take them back to the beginning and walk them through it. The best thing you can do is to not just teach them the basics of astronomy, but to give them the inspiration and fire. Spur them to unlock the mysteries of space, time and reality.I wish someone had told me in my introduction to astronomy course that beginning with the knowledge I'll get in this class, I might one day be able to find a previously unseen star system, discover new dimensions and unlock the mysteries of time.
    That would have kept me coming back for sure ;).