AAS 203rd Meeting, January 2004
Session 19 Focus on Undergraduate Astronomy
Poster, Monday, January 5, 2004, 9:20am-6:30pm, Grand Hall

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[19.05] Astronomy 101 Students Learning How Science Works by Writing Credible Observing Proposals

H.L. Shipman (University of Delaware)

Teachers of general-audience science courses, astronomy department chairs, and K-12 standards-writing committees all agree that student understanding of the scientific habits of mind is one important goal of any science course. This paper reports the successful use of a problem-based learning approach where students asked to choose the next step in an observational astronomy research program. The course, “Black Holes and Cosmic Evolution,” is a rather unusual version of Astronomy 101 which spends the first three weeks on the ways that astronomers search for black holes. The 136 students were given a list of black hole candidates (from Bailyn et al., ApJ 499, 368) and asked to work in groups of 4-5 to choose and justify one for further observations. They learned and used error analysis. They determined the X-ray properties of these objects with an on-line x-ray survey (http://skyview.gsfc.nasa.gov/). The group product was a paper that was, essentially, a standard NOAO observing proposal. The University of Delaware’s access to telescopes through its newly-acquired membership in the SMARTS consortium (http://phoenix.astro.yale.edu/smarts/) provided some motivation.

In short, these students, none of whom are science majors, were challenged to act like real observational astronomers. Some guidance was provided by the instructor and two undergraduate TA’s. Did they rise to the challenge or did they flounder? They succeeded. All 30 groups presented credible papers. Several A-plus papers were so good that they could make up most of an actual observing proposal. A follow-up exam tested students’ understanding of underlying concepts (e.g., using Kepler’s Laws to analyze binary stars). The average score on these test questions was 89.2 % (n=133). We plan to use some SMARTS time to observe student-selected targets. This research has been supported by the Distinguished Teaching Scholars program of the National Science Foundation (DUE-0308557).

If you would like more information about this abstract, please follow the link to http://www.udel.edu/physics/phys145. This link was provided by the author. When you follow it, you will leave the Web site for this meeting; to return, you should use the Back comand on your browser.

The author(s) of this abstract have provided an email address for comments about the abstract: harrys@udel.edu

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 35#5
© 2003. The American Astronomical Soceity.