Updated July 2017
Here is my take on an astronomy curriculum guide. One didn’t exist when I looked back in 2008 when I first started an astronomy course. So I made one.
If you are looking for a scope and sequence document, I recently went through the entire OpenStax Astronomy textbook and dropped in where I plan to use which activities. It’s a great starting place and is the most bang for the buck. Otherwise, read on!
There is a Facebook group called Teaching Astronomy that is open to anyone teaching astronomy. You can join and ask questions and share experiences with others. So come join! I would like to make this guide a collaborative effort and the FB group seems like a great place to start.
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.
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. 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”. Generally I recommend visiting the Center for Astronomy Education website to learn about the “astro 101” philosophy.
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.
- 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). I use the UT Quest homework system.
- 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. Instead of listing all the labs I do all year here, I have a curated and annotated list you can see here.
- My list of astronomy labs for the whole year!
- 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 Today – I am an avid reader of the blog Universe Today. 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 based on content from Universe Today.
- 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.
- The Moon hoax episode of Mythbusters from 2008 from Discovery Channel.
- PBS shows:
- 4oo Years of the Telescope (about Galileo).
- The Pluto Files from NOVA (the book is great – read my review).
- Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos are awesome (also great books too!)
- Lots of episodes of NOVA would work in fact.
- Seeing in the Dark by Tim Ferris (the book is also great).
- The Cosmos reboot by Neil de Grasse Tyson is one I use a lot.
- BBC’s Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox
- 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.
- 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.
Scope and Sequence
I have 6 grading cycles throughout the year with 54 minute classes. 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
- Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
- Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
- Orbits and Gravity
- Earth, Moon, and Sky
- Radiation and Spectra
- Astronomical Instruments
- Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
- Earth as a Planet
- Cratered Worlds
- Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
- The Giant Planets
- Rings, Moons, and Pluto
- Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
- Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
- The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
- The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
Spring: Stellar & Galactic
- Analyzing Starlight
- The Stars: A Celestial Census
- Celestial Distances
- Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
- The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
- Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
- The Death of Stars
- Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
- The Milky Way Galaxy
- Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
- The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
- The Big Bang
- Life in the 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. The JPL/NASA Night Sky Network is a great place to search for clubs near you. 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.
More on Observing: Binoculars and the naked eye are generally the best tools for astronomy. But I 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.
- 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. 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. One very common choice is an 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain. We have 2 of these scopes. I am not paid by Celestron. Other brands are great too like Meade, Vixen, Orion,
- Solar telescopes can work well but can be expensive. I bought a Coronado PST that use all year long for solar observing during class.
Books, Magazines, Journals
If you haven’t checked out the high-quality free textbooks at Open Stax, you should! The astronomy text is high-quality, up-to-date, and absolutely free to use!
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.
- 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.
- My favs are Universe Today, The One Minute Astronomer, and The Planetary Society Blogs although I make a habit of reading them all. 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.
- 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.
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. The web has A LOT of stuff that allows the same access to stuff as you see here and usually for free.
- 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.
Student Research Opportunities
- Skynet Junior Scholars