Development of a sophomore level astronomy course on planets and telescopes
The undergraduate major not only imparts knowledge about a discipline; it also trains students in the practice of that field. Astrophysics—like all sciences—evolves, and the skills that a student of astrophysics is expected to acquire therefore also evolve. Numerical software has made tables of integrals gather dust; data analysis and CCD detectors have replaced visual scanning of photographic plates. Further, although the majority of astrophysics majors do not become professional astronomers, they do find employment in a variety of STEM fields. For both these reasons, the undergraduate major must impart skills that are broadly applicable.
As part of a response to an institutional accreditation review, the astronomy group at Michigan State University committed to the following learning outcomes for the undergraduate astrophysics major.
Students completing an Astrophysics degree will be able to:
Apply concepts from physics, mathematics, and scientific computing to solve quantitative problems in astrophysics;
Gather, analyze, and interpret astronomical data from sources including telescopes, databases, computer simulations, analytic models, and the scientific literature; and
Effectively communicate scientific ideas in both written and oral form.
Data analysis and numerical computation are now ubiquitous in astrophysics and in STEM careers; yet undergraduate curricula have been slower to systematically train students in these skills. In addition to having a greater reliance on statistical and computational techniques, STEM fields (including astrophysics) are increasingly collaborative. Skills such as communication and project management are an essential component of a student’s education.
This gap between what is taught in courses and what is needed by the discipline is readily apparent when astrophysics students begin their senior theses, which are a requirement for an astrophysics degree at Michigan State. As noted in the astronomy group’s response to the accreditation review,
During the past decade, we have found that many of our students begin their senior thesis project without the statistical, computational, and/or database skills needed to make sufficiently rapid progress. Our faculty members have therefore had to spend precious one-on-one thesis-advising time teaching skills that students could have learned as part of their coursework.
Our revisions to AST 208 (Planets and Telescopes), AST 304 (Stars), and AST 308 (Galaxies) remedy this deficiency by pacing student progress toward these modern learning goals, so that students emerge with a deeper knowledge base and readily applicable skills. In this document, we describe in detail the innovative changes made to AST 208.
AST 208 is the first rigorous course in the astrophysics major. A recommended background course, AST 207 (The Science of Astronomy), serves as more of a broad survey over the entire field, whereas AST 208 contains a laboratory (observing) component and explores a specific topic, planetary science (using, e.g., Lissauer et al., 2013), in greater depth. The marriage of a lecture-based planetary science course with a laboratory course on observational practice came about as a quirk of history. Indeed, in previous editions of the course these two components operated independently. With the introduction of more rigorous data analysis and statistical methods, we believe that a tighter integration of the lecture and the lab is more appropriate.
In-class contact time comprises two 50-minute lectures and one 110-minute lab each week. In Spring 2015, out of 28 students taking AST 208 there are 17 astrophysics majors (including 3 Lyman Briggs astrophysics majors). The remaining students include five physics majors and several students from assorted majors; they are taking AST 208 as an elective.
Because AST 208 is the gateway course for astrophysics majors, it provides an opportunity to introduce core skills that are developed further in the upper-level courses AST 304 and AST 308. In brief, AST 208 covers statistics and introduces the students to numerical computation; AST 304 focuses on computational problem solving; and AST 308 incorporates learning the use of astronomical databases to retrieve source and catalog information.