Using a students strength to engage them in Astronomy 101

If there is one thing I have learnt from teaching students over the past couple of years it's that they all have varying degrees of previous knowledge and excel at different types of study. For example, there are students who excel at physics and doing mathematical studies whereas there are those students who excel at explaining concepts using English rather than equations. In a course like Astronomy 101 you get all kinds of people with all these different skills. So wouldn't it be great to use the skills each individual has to engage them in what is primarily a physics based course?

Astronomy 101 is typically a general course with no prerequisites and is not a prerequisite for another course. Which means we end up with students from all backgrounds and degrees taking the same course in Astronomy. Hopefully all students are there because they have an interest in astronomy! But having students from all over does pose the question: How much math and physics can we actually put into a course that is going to be examined on the understanding of physics and math by students who may not have kept up with either in the past?

Think about it this way; We could allow the students to dictate half of their course work. For example, at the beginning of the year we ask the current cohort of students what about astronomy brought them to the course or what interests them the most and we build it into their course across the semester. This would mean that these students will get to learn about the things that engage them and also gives them some ownership over their course. From my experience, giving students ownership over what they are studying or how they are studying engages them so much more than just feeding them course work you've come up with yourself. You wouldn't have an entire course dictated by students interests but you could have half the course open to include their interests that can be leavened into a core lot of Astronomy course work. This would give them their interests but also allow them to learn the core basics they may need to know to understand astronomy as a whole, and make it a bit easier to pre-plan lectures before the semester starts!

Making the course work more engaging is all well and good but it is usually still a physics course which means a physics-like exam. I do believe that this can often be what turns students off doing astronomy, that we emphasise the physics and math but forget about everything else. I've met chemists, biologists, computer scientists, historians, and many others all in astronomy. So why not show that astronomy isn't just about physics and math from the beginning?

Instead of an exam you could institute a research project where each student has to propose a project they would like to carry out over the semester in a part of astronomy. Let's say we have avid astronomers with heavy computing emphasis; they could choose to look at taking data of a planet or star or nebula and analyse it! Someone who loves engineering and rockets could research into plasma thrusters and how they work or how to make them even better. Someone interested in science communication could look at communicating some of the hard-core research to the rest of the students int he course. A psychology major could look at how going into space affects the mind or how the Moon landing shaped the drive to explore outer space. There are so many avenues in astronomy the options are nearly endless.

I've always taken Astronomy 101 to be a crash course in astronomy for anyone who wants to know about it. As a physicist I am more inclined towards physics and math but there is more to astronomy. If you are taking astronomy because you are interested in it, and not because it is your career choice, I think you should be able to have a broader understanding of astronomy as a whole and really just have fun with it!

Here's what I would attempt to institute in an Astronomy 101 course:

- A core set of lectures on core astrophysical concepts with easy maths and physics

- A secondary set of lectures that can be changed and altered to work with the specific interests of the group currently being taught but are also related to the core lectures

- At least half a lesson on interpreting astronomy in the media a week by using something recent from the news or using recent movies/TV shows (One of my favourite things is looking at sci-fi movies and trying to work out if what is going on is actually possible or not)

- No exam but a large research project on something in astronomy using a students strength and interests in say history/sociology/language/physics/math/media or whatever they are studying as their major at university. This would include also teaching students how research projects are undertaken by having a project proposal as part of the assessment

- Giving all students the chance to use a telescope and do a bit of analysis on a pulsar or nebula to show them what being an observational astronomer is like (because this is what I am and I reckon it is a lot of fun!)

It does look like a daunting task to change how Astronomy 101 is normally taught but I think a combination of flipped classrooms, workshops and giving students ownership over their own course would let more people into the world of astronomy with new perspectives and passions that run deeper than just liking space.

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