Astronomy Week 1

Last night was the first lecture of the first-year astronomy course I am teaching for non-science majors.

The theme of the course is The Search for Life in the Universe. The topic is exciting, interesting, and cutting-edge!

Each lecture is a whopping 3 hours long, which means I need to do more than just be the sage on the stage, talking AT the students (or at least, I think so).

So, each, week, I hope to incorporate a few different teaching strategies to mix things up.

The first lecture began with an introduction to the big ideas of the course, then a bit about matter, energy, and light, and then the “paper work” part of overviewing the syllabus (I left this to the end so we could start off on a more interesting note).

Each week, I’ll share my learning outcomes for the lesson:

Learning Outcomes for Week 1

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Understand what we’re looking for when we say we’re looking for life
  • Know which sciences are central to this search
  • Have a basic understanding of what astrobiology is
  • Understand the basic principles of matter, energy and light, including:
    • Atoms/molecules
    • Phases of matter
    • Types of energy
    • properties of light
    • Electromagnetic spectrum
    • Spectroscopy

I began the lecture with the short video called The Most Astounding Fact:

I then got the students to fill out a poll (using the university’s online software OWL (Sakai) about their opinions on if there is life in our universe. A decisive 98% of respondents (188 students) believe there is SOME SORT of life in the universe, and 76% believe we’ve been visited by intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe.

Then into a lecture component about what it IS that we’re looking for when we’re looking for life, the sciences involved in the search, where we’re searching, and an intro to astrobiology.

At this point I did a think-pair-share with the following questions:

  • Why is this search important? (or is it?)
  • What are we really trying to learn?
  • What do you think about spending time/money/resources on this science?

Being the first lecture, I didn’t get a lot of hands popping up to share their thoughts, but I got a few (which was more than I thought I’d get!). They shared thoughts about:

  • It’s important to keep exploring because we’re curious by nature
  • We’re not only trying to learn about life, but about the science needed to understand it
  • It’s important because the technology needed to do this science needs to be cutting edge, so it pushes research forward.
  • A vast majority believe it’s a good use of our resources/dollars/etc

At this point we had a break (in a 3 hour course, it’s necessary!)

When we returned, we went back into lecture mode and I briefly explained atoms/molecules/compounds, phases of matter, and energy. I used a few interactive figures provided by the textbook publisher (yay!).

To end the content portion, I talked about light, the electromagnetic spectrum, and how we can use light to explore objects in the universe (and how it’s the only way to do so because they’re too far away to get too).

During this portion, I brought out some gas discharge tubes and diffraction glasses, so they could see the spectra of some elements (hydrogen, helium, neon, and mercury).

At first, it looked like no one was going to take a look, but once a handful of people did, I would say about 100 of them did! It was AWESOME! Students were asking follow-up questions, wanting to know more, and I even heard some “cool!” “awesome” and even “this is SO sick!” — that made my entire semester, and it’s only day 1!

Looking forward to next week!


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