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Revamping Astro 101

Every year at colleges and universities across the U.S. a quarter of a million undergraduates enroll in an introductory astronomy course for nonmajors. "We are packing 'em in," says American Astronomical Society (AAS) education officer Bruce Partridge, an astronomer at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania. But the success of Astro 101, as the courses are generically called, has made professors a little bit anxious. "The course is so popular that we have a unique opportunity to teach students about science," he says, "And there is a suspicion that we aren't doing this as well as we could."

       Sheila Tobias agrees that Astro 101 could benefit from a fresh pedagogical approach. There is a disconnect between what students expect from Astro 101 and what the course typically offers, says Tobias, an educational consultant and the author of numerous books including the 1992 Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why some things work and most don't. "Outsiders expect to learn about the big questions and controversies," she says, "not the details that professional astronomers think are important." Or, as Partridge puts it, "Is it worthwhile to spend a whole class on low-mass x-ray binary stars?"

To address these questions, Partridge and several fellow astronomers are now organizing two meetings to bring astronomy department leaders face-to-face with experts in learning. The first meeting will be held 11-12 May at the University of California, Berkeley, and the second 15-16 June at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In total, the meetings will bring together more than 35 leading astronomers and educators from small liberal arts colleges and giant Research I institutions. "The notion here is to convince the leaders and hope that the rest of the community follows suit," says Partridge. To get the word out, the organizers plan to publish a summary of the meeting, which will be funded by the National Science Foundation.

No specific reforms have been proposed, but there is a consensus that Astro 101 should incorporate more free-form group projects that mirror real research. "In the traditional format, a professor puts on a performance and then students do a few problems," says astronomer Jonathon Arons, the head of the department of astronomy at UC Berkeley, "I'm interested in learning how to make students more than passive auditors." Arons is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for success, noting that the UC Berkeley department of physics saw a sudden increase in the number of new physics majors when they recently experimented with less structured group-oriented introductory lab exercises. Another surprising consequence of the change: Half of the new majors were female.

Getting any proposed changes to stick, however, will require more than just writing up a new syllabus. To be successful, reforms must win wide support throughout the faculty, they must be sufficiently funded, and students have to know about them, says Tobias. "But this is out of most astronomers' realm," she tells Next Wave, "So they brought me in to show them how to sell the course to their deans and market it to the students." Arons agrees that follow-up efforts will be crucial. "Nothing happens unless you push," says Arons.