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The availability of low-cost high-performance computing hardware and software has transformed the manner by which astronomical concepts can be re-discovered and explored in a laboratory that accompanies an astronomy course for non-scientist students. We present a strategy for allowing each student to understand fundamental scientific principles by interactively confronting astronomical and physical phenomena, through direct observation and by computer simulation.
Direct observation of physical phenomena, such as Hooke's Law, begins by using a computer and hardware interface as a data-collection and presentation tool. In this way, the student is encouraged to explore the physical conditions of the experiment and re-discover the fundamentals involved. The hardware frees the student from the tedium of manual data collection and presentation, and permits experimental design which utilizes data that would otherwise be too fleeting, too imprecise, or too voluminous. Computer simulation of astronomical phenomena allows the student to travel in time and space, freed from the vagaries of weather, to re-discover such phenomena as the daily and yearly cycles, the reason for the seasons, the saros, and Kepler's Laws. By integrating the knowledge gained by experimentation and simulation, the student can understand both the scientific concepts and the methods by which they are discovered and explored.
We present the laboratory experiments (also available via anonymous FTP from ASTRO4.AST.VILL.EDU), and information concerning the hardware and software requirements.
This work is supported by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
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