By Katie Berryhill
Assistant Professor of Space Studies at American Public University
Astronomy is one of the most popular classes that students take to satisfy a general education science requirement. Perhaps this is because of the beautiful images from the Hubble Space Telescope and having been exposed to television shows such as Cosmos (both Carl Sagan’s original and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake). So the challenge for astronomy faculty (whether online or face-to-face) is to ensure that class material builds on students’ interest, hopefully to a lifetime of learning about our universe. Students’ initial curiosity also makes astronomy an excellent vehicle to teach critical thinking skills, and help students to navigate the information they encounter in the world (whether about science of anything else). This helps them to become better citizens, able to think for themselves when presented with the deluge of information at their fingertips.
Laboratory activities that use authentic astronomical data are an excellent way for astronomy to ignite curiosity and teach critical thinking skills simultaneously. Two examples that my colleagues and I have used are Planet Hunters and MicroObservatory.
Planethunters.org is part of the Zooniverse citizen science project (in collaboration with Yale University). This site allows participants to interact with public data released from the Kepler Space Telescope, which has collected several years’ worth of brightness data from more than 150,000 stars. The mission of Kepler is to search for transits, the tell-tale dip in a star’s brightness caused by a planet orbiting the star and briefly passing in front of the star’s disk from our perspective. Humans are better than computers at looking for these dips, as pattern recognition is hard for computers to do well. Engaging students in citizen science projects such as this helps them to relate their class learning to real-world discoveries. It’s possible that a student could help to discover an extrasolar planet in the process!
MicroObservatory is a small network of robotic telescopes that can be directed through the Internet. Run by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the MicroObservatory system allows students to request images of particular objects, setting some of the parameters of the image including exposure time, field of view, and filters. The site also provides free software that allows students to learn some rudimentary image processing techniques, including stacking images to hunt for asteroids, or colorizing and stacking images taken through different filters to create a three-color image of a nebula or galaxy.
While there are many other best practices for teaching astronomy online, these activities are examples of what is perhaps the most important best practice: ensuring that the class doesn’t squander the interest of students by focusing on lower-order thinking tasks like memorizing, and consists instead of activities that engage students in learning about how scientists discover new wonders of the universe.
About the Author
Professor Berryhill co-led a workshop on the subject of best practices in online astronomy teaching at the August 2014 annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Her co-leader was Ken Brandt of the University of North Carolina Pembroke and the Robeson County (North Carolina) public schools.