Help me help you – then you help me. Wait… what?
There is a Google group called Astronomy Education that is open to anyone teaching astronomy. You can join and ask questions and share experiences with others. So come join!
I am going to make a list of what works and doesn’t work for me in my high school astronomy course as well as the resources I have come to depend on. This is just my class and mostly the stuff here is just my opinion. That’s where you can help me. I am working mostly alone but it doesn’t have to be that way. I welcome critiques, advice, words of encouragement, labs, readings, observation tips, equipment recommendations, and well anything else that might make my astronomy course better. So help me out and you are welcome to the things you find here. If something is old, wrong, a dead link, or confusing let me know.
Much of what I put here will be repeats of links on my resources page.
Astro 101 Philosophy (peer-based/student-centered learning)
The first thing to note for my materials is that I built my course around what I am calling the “astro 101 philosophy”. That isn’t my term but rather one I have run into countless times from undergraduate astronomy classes while putting my curriculum together. Think about the target audience for such a course – non-major scientifically-minded people. So they may or may not have a complete math and science skill-set when they set foot in your class. I still teach cosmology, black hole physics, quantum mechanics, and relativity – all year in fact – without the reliance on advance math skills in my students. My idea here is to teach astronomy as the first science; to use astronomy to create “science as a way of thinking” as well as “science as a body of knowledge”. I was majorly influenced by the advice of the author of the instructor resource manual for Astronomy Today sixth edition, Dr. James Heath.
One major theme is the emphasis on peer-centered (or small-group-centered) work rather than lectures. Don’t get me wrong. I lecture from presentation software (usually Google Docs) a lot. However I encourage discussion and questioning. This means I cover less material but I’m ok with that. Here are some of the peer-based ideas I have tried out.
- Concept Inventories – find out what they know, the misconceptions, the gaps, the prior knowledge. I use the Astronomy Diagnostic Test. But there are a variety of useful ones out there.
- Lecture Tutorials – these are a fantastic way to address the most important and hardest to understand ideas. I really love lecture tutorials. They seem like worksheets but you shouldn’t use them that way. Hand them out and have the class work on them for 10 – 20 minutes depending on the topic in pairs. Then have the pairs discuss with a neighboring pair. Then you go over it calling on people as you go and making sure everyone understands. The topics are chosen because they are often misunderstood or have common misconceptions. The book is great and I recommend it highly. I have also had luck Googling a topic with the words “lecture tutorial” and hitting on other great ones out there.
- Think-Pair-Share (ConcepTests and Class Action) – students work in pairs or threes to answer short questions and share with others. You can call on them or have them present the answers. You can use remotes or clickers or use cards or even small whiteboards. Think peer instruction and quick assessment. Here is one I wrote for waves. Here’s one I wrote for heliocentric vs geocentric.
- Guided Math/Physics/Astronomy Problem Sets – when the math is important but perhaps very challenging (e.g. Newton’s law of gravitation or using angular measurements in parallax).
- Images – the use of images in astronomy as a teaching tool and a scientific tool cannot be overstated. Learn how to look at astronomical images so you can have your students do the same. So many important ideas can be conveyed using high-quality images.
In-class Labs & Activities
In Texas public school science teachers must do lab work 40% of the time. I use a very broad interpretation here.
- Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) – I start everyday with APOD. As the year goes on the students gain skills in recognizing things like lava flows on a lunar image or the difference between a supernova remnant and a stellar nursery.
- Where in the Solar System/Universe – I am an avid reader of the blog Universe Today and you can try your hand at the Where in the Universe posts. These are great for getting students to analyze images. I made my own “Where in the solar system” activity for the first day of school with a variety of locations.
- TV Shows – The history channel show The Universe is an endless source of excellent imagery, metaphors, lecture notes, humor, and in my case guided video watching. Here’s one I created for Secrets of the Sun. I have also used Into the Universe with Steven Hawking and the Moon hoax episode of Mythbusters from 2008 from Discovery Channel. PBS shows like 4oo Years of the Telescope (about Galileo), The Pluto Files from NOVA (the book is great – read my review), Seeing in the Dark by Tim Ferris (the book is also great).
- Stellarium – This free desktop planetarium works on Windows, Mac, and Linux and can be used for a wide variety of demos, sketching exercises, and observational labs. I have some on my labs page. Note I use Google Docs for these for ease of updating.
- Celestia – This free software is Windows only and is buggy from time to time but can be a desktop planetarium but for me the power of it is as a solar system explorer. There are a lot of educational tools for Celestia also. I generally have to heavily edit these since they are too long for a 54 minute class.
- Nebraska Astronomy Applet Project (NAAP) – This is a web-based (also download-able) set of astronomy labs, demos, and interactive tools that are fabulous. I think the hydrogen atom simulator is one of my favs. There are full lab write ups as well ready to go. I usually edit them down since they take too long for a period.
- Sketching from the telescope (daytime/nighttime) – I have an Dobsonian telescope and a solar telescope that I take outside for observing and sketching exercises of the moon (yes it’s up in the daytime) and the sun. Sometimes I set up Stellarium and ask them to sketch from there. I use sketch sheets astronomers use and I follow the advice of experts. I am no artist and so my students don’t have to have art skills either.
- Moon & Mercury Comparative Planetology – Crater counting and surface morphology is a critical skill and I teach about cratering using both the Moon and Mercury concurrently. This intro to comparative planetology using the moon & mercury was enhanced by my buddies at the Unknown Moon workshop as our final presentation.
- Impact Cratering Lab from LPI – The Lunar and Planetary Institute education group put together a web-based in-depth impact cratering lab that gives the sort of experience planetary scientists
- Google Mars planetary geology – Google Earth has the capacity to turn into Google Mars so when it’s time for comparative planetology and Mars I use something like this Mars Mapping Exercise. Again this needs tweaking but it was pretty good overall.
- Spectroscopes and gas lamps – the chemistry teachers have lots of gas tubes and lamps I can borrow to use with my plastic spectroscopes. This lab needs more meat. Perhaps some kind of mystery gas to match to a given spectra. Either way here is what I used in class. The NAAP Hydrogen Atom Simulator lab should probably go first in the sequence before moving on to spectroscopy.
- H-R Diagram Labs – stars of Orion H-R diagram plotting shows how this useful but esoteric tool actually works. Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram of Stars in Orion Lab: Blank Chart – List of Stars in Orion. Students are asked to plot the data and look for patterns or classes of stars. The NAAP H-R diagram lab is also excellent.
- Zooniverse – The Zooniverse is one of the many citizen science projects around where you or your students can actually help in a small way in the research. You either classify or label images or video creating a vast database instead of an untapped data supply. There is Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Storm Watch. The Moon Zoo project needs a lab write up yet but the software is undeniably cool. I haven’t played with Solar Storm Watch much but it could use a good write as well. For Galaxy Zoo I created a Google form for collecting data from students as they classified galaxies. Then I could grade each submission at a later time from my computer.
- Contemporary Lab Experiences in Astronomy (CLEA) – I haven’t used these but considering the frequency with which I found them in searches, in blogs and forums, and in conversation I decided to include them here.
- My instructor for the Unknown Moon Institute at LPI, Chrisine Shupla, told me about a few more astronomy labs:
- Where is the center of the universe? from the Exploratorium.
- How fast to galaxies move? spectroscopy lab from NASA and the Smithsonian.
- Classifying galaxies using the Hubble tuning form diagram from NASA Goddard.
- H-R diagram lab from Astrobiology curriculum from TERC.
- Where is M13? software package for galactic and star cluster mapping from Think Astronomy.
- The team at McDonald Observatory for the Light & Optics workshop had some cool things to share:
- Kelper Star Wheel
- Hands On Astronomy
- Dark Sky Association
Scope and Sequence
I use a modified version of what came with my text Astronomy Today 6th ed. I have 6 grading cycles throughout the year with 54 minute classes and a room that is also my AP/IB computer science lab. I have a projector and a laser printer. The 2 semesters have a little overlap but not much. Either way I repeat ideas and concepts over and over throughout the year. Here is what I do:
Fall: Solar System
- Night Sky & Historical Astronomy
- The Copernican Revolution
- Solar System Overview
- The Moon & Mercury
- Constellation Project
- Uranus & Neptune
- Dwarf & Minor Planets
- How Solar Systems Form
- Debate: Is Pluto A Planet:?
- The Search for Extraterrestial Life
Spring: Stellar & Galactic
- Radiation & The EM Spectrum
- The Sun
- Intro to Stellar Astronomy
- The Interstellar Medium
- How Stars Form
- Star Life & Death
- Novae & Supernovae
- Neutron Stars, Magnetars, & Black Holes
- The Milky Way Galaxy
- Intro to Galactic Astronomy
- Large-Scale Galactic Structure
- Intro To Cosmology
- The Early Universe
Observing Time & Observation Log
Observation Time: If you plan on using observing equipment like telescopes, solar scopes, binoculars and the like you probably need some advice unless you already are into amateur astronomy. There are so many choices and so much to consider. The best advice is to join a local astronomy club. Not only can you get advice, but training and help also. And you can probably get the club to volunteer to come to your school and host a star party (observing session – not THAT kinda party). Don’t ever underestimate the power of naked-eye observations and constellation tours. You may want to get a green laser pointer since you and the observers can see the beam at night. If nothing else you can generate free printable star charts at SkyMaps.com for every month that has a list of events and sights along with instructions for use. This is good for students, parents, and the public. If you have never used a star chart before you should check out the tutorial from the One Minute Astronomer. It is similar to learning to read maps of the earth. For class observing you may want to move to a bound set of star charts. The Norton Sky Atlas or Sky Atlas 2000.0 are my favorites although there are a lot of choices out there.
Observation Log: From my perspective my course is an “astro 101” type of course and one of the skills I can help my students develop is being attentive observers. My astronomy course has a strong observational component from sketching at the scope or sketching from software to analyzing daily pictures from APOD. One of the members of a local astronomy club who also teaches astro 101 at the community college level gave me the idea to have an observation log where students have to sketch and record objects and techniques in a log book. My current version of the observation log requires that over the course of the entire academic year students record and sketch 17 objects from constellations to deep sky objects.
More on Observing: Binoculars and the naked eye are generally the best tools for astronomy. ButI use 3 types of telescopes in my class that vary in terms of ease-of-use, cost and portability and allow more detailed views of the night sky. You should also check out the How to Choose a Telescope for Beginners video series over at One Minute Astronomer.
- The best way to look at the sky if you want to use more than your unaided eye is through a pair of binoculars. For a classroom teacher having a set of binoculars would be ideal but a few may be all you can afford or perhaps just one pair. I use a pair of binoculars that afford excellent views and are easy to handle. They are a tad heavy so for longer viewing sessions a seated position is best. But there is also a tripod mount included. My pair cost me $75. You don’t need to spend big bucks to get good binoculars for astronomy. Astronomy Magazine has a good run down on using binoculars for astronomy. I also bought a $300 Celestron SkyScout so students can explore targets without a scope. There is a locate mode for guiding the user to a target and an identify mode so you can point it at something in the sky and find out what it is. There is a built-in GPS system so you don’t have to configure your location, date or time.
- Celestron SkyMaster binocs and SkyScout
- First off is my favorite scope the Dobsonian reflector. This is a modernized version of the Newtonian reflecting telescope and is easy to setup and use and fairly easy to transport and store. I have an 8″ (diameter) scope which works well for the solar system objects and the moon and also for stars, galaxies, clusters, and nebulae. The scope is about 4 feet tall and weighs about 40 lbs when put together. It can be moved in two parts of about 20 lbs each or as a unit although it is ungainly as a unit.
- 8″ Dobsonian reflector
- Computerized “Go-To” scopes have a learning curve but can be set to track a single target or even to find a target from a built-in list. I chose a Celestron NexStar 4 Maksutov-cassegrain reflector which has this type of system. It is a pain to configure every time but the whole thing is very portable. It took me some practice and hands-on help from more experienced folks to get the hang of this scope. But the planetary and lunar views are amazing. The scope can also be used for astrophotography. Being able to track a target is a benefit with a large group also.
- 4″ Maksutov-Cassegrain Reflector
- One very common choice and probably the next scope I will get for my class is an 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain. The larger aperture will make this setup more versatile. There are Go-To versions of these scopes and there are motorized-only versions and I suppose even a hand-controlled version. This is similar to the 4″ Maksutov I have but the 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain is the more common model and frankly more versatile. It just cost more than a thousand where the smaller scope was closer to $500. I am not paid by Celestron. Other brands are great too like Meade, Vixen, Orion,
Books, Magazines, Journals
There are some good textbooks out there. I chose Astronomy Today 6e and find the reading level too high for most of my students.
I really think astronomy instructors should read Peer Instruction for Astronomy even if you don’t use the “astro 101” format.
The Lecture-Tutorial book is full of peer-based worksheets designed to make the instructor into a facilitator and to attack the biggest misconceptions in astronomy and physics. What I do is hand out the lecture-tutorial and and intro the very basic ideas and then let them work in pairs while I work my way around the room making sure all is going well. Then about 10 – 15 minutes later comes the “share with the pair next to you” then after a few minutes I call on pairs to answer questions and make sure everyone is getting it. This is my version of the think-pair-share technique. I usually grade them as complete or not rather than right or wrong but to each his/her own.
I first heard about think-pair-share in Learner-Centered Astronomy. This book is a great resource when paired with Peer Instruction for Astronomy. I often flip from one to the other. There is a lot of material in the back of this one you can draw from.
Astronomy Magazine is one of the best sources for someone learning about astronomy. Teachers should get the magazine and read the articles to keep up with research, observational techniques, new discoveries, news, and astronomy culture in general.
Sky & Telescope Magazine is another great source to keep up with what’s what in astronomy. It is slightly less academic in my opinion but still an excellent resource for learning about astronomy.
- Astronomy Education Review is astronomy education research journal with peer-reviewed research into what works and what doesn’t in the astronomy classroom. Meant for both undergraduate and high school instructors this one is digital rather than print.
Websites, Blogs, RSS feeds, and Twitter
- The Astrolrner@CAE Mailing List – a lot of astro101 instructors use this mailing list. Mostly these are community college and college folks but there are some high school teachers too.
- The astro links page has a list of all the blogs and RSS feeds I read. My favs are Bad Astronomy, Universe Today, The One Minute Astronomer, and The Planetary Society Blog although I make a habit of reading them all. The 365 Days of Astronomy podcast is always fun. I can also catch up on the public-radio Star Date segments run by the McDonald Observatory when I miss them on KUHF here in Houston. Mainly I read these using Google Reader which shows pages that use RSS in a reverse-date format as if I have mashed together all these blog posts into one big page.
- You should try checking out the websites for the current (and past) missions exploring space and the solar system. Don’t forget NASA isn’t the only space agency on the planet. Check out the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Indian Space Research Organisation. Pretty much every probe, satellite, robotic mission, rover, and human space mission will have a web presence and most also have Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. Many of the astronauts and International Space Agency residents Tweet while on missions in space.
- Twitter isn’t necessarily the best place to learn about astronomy but you can follow trends and learn things as soon as they happen if you know who to follow. There are astronauts and NASA missions and professional astronomers and science media personalities and amateur astronomers a plenty. Rather than link to anyone in particular I have my astronomy Twitter list publicly available so you can see which ones I follow.
- I don’t really use Facebook in any way for astronomy that helps me in my classroom other than for creating events like star parties so there isn’t anything or anyone to link to. I also post news and links to both Twitter and Facebook as a way of promoting science and astronomy and letting people know about the latest stuff.
The thing with astronomy software is that if you don’t have a computer lab or have easy access to one you are hard-pressed to use software for labs. Some of these are web-based and some are free. You can send students to the school library, public library or home computer (if they have one) but even that isn’t a great solution. Either way you can use all of the software mentioned here for lessons, lectures, activities, and demos.
- Stellarium – awesome free open-source multi-platform software that works for labs, demos, discussions, and public presentations. You can also use it when you have a star party at school but the weather won’t cooperate.
- Celestia – this software is Windows only and bit heavy on system resources but is also free. Plus you can find a lot of educational material to go with it.
- Starry Night – for Mac and Windows and in a variety of price points (just not free) Starry Night is my favorite tool for observational astronomy. If you have the money there are even labs to go along with a full install of this with say 20 licenses to use in a computer lab.
- The Sky – the classic astronomy software from Software Bisque is not my favorite although it runs on OS X and Windows and has a lot of features. The learning curve is steep. Think of this software as more for the hardcore astronomer. There is a student version though at a lower price than the professional version.
- Virtual Moon Atlas – a Windows only fantastic tool for learning to observe the moon. This kind of tool works for naked-eye viewing targets all the way to high-magnification telescopic targets.
- World Wide Telescope – the desktop version is Windows only but the web version runs on any web-enabled computer. The detail and information available is amazing and there are even NASA-Microsoft data collaborations making this a fantastic and free classroom tool.
- Google Earth/Moon/Mars/Sky – the Google Earth tool runs on multiple platforms and is free and can be used for things like mapping and comparative planetology. The Google Sky setting is also pretty cool. There is a web version of Google Moon, Google Mars, and Google Sky but you get more data with the desktop version.