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Many introductory astronomy courses for the non-science major take a somewhat historical approach, especially at the start of the course. At the University of New Mexico, we are developing an innovative course in a large (about 300 students) lecture format. The main thrust has been to restructure the traditional "descriptive" astronomy course into one that focuses on the process of science by identifying and linking essential concepts. The goal: to teach explicitly the structural knowledge of astronomy, which is clear to experts but opaque to novices. To focus on the process of science, we have decided to minimize a historical treatment of the material. But this strategy results in a cognitive twist. We know that students bring into class their personal world views, largely unexamined, about how nature works. Some of these alternative conceptions mimic pre-Newtonian notions and in a loose sense recapitulate the history of astronomy. Is taking a historical approach a good heuristic device for teaching introductory astronomy? Or does it reinforce alternative concepts and so confuse students?
This work is supported in part by NSF grant DUE-9253983
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