The Astronomy B.S. degree program provides preparation for graduate studies in astronomy, astrophysics, and related fields with the aim of a career in scientific research. It also provides suitable study for a career with related applications in the private sector, government laboratories, and observatories. Lastly, and of great importance given our national needs in K-12 education, it provides preparation for a career in science education at the secondary school or junior college level.
The Astronomy major includes: (1) two years of prerequisite courses in math and introductory physics, and a one-semester survey course in introductory astrophysics (ASTR 250); (2) a 2-semester junior year sequence covering gravitation and relativity, and radiative processes; (3) a 2-semester senior year sequence on stellar, galactic and extragalactic astronomy, and cosmology; (4) an observational techniques course; (5) a minimum of 3 units of senior independent study; and (6) a selection of 5 upper-division physics courses.
This program can be completed in 4 years by an entering freshman prepared to take introductory calculus in the first semester. Additional physics courses are recommended for students preparing for graduate studies. Consequently, a majority of Astronomy majors choose to take a double major in Physics as well as Astronomy. The double major B.S. in Astronomy and Physics is a highly marketable degree with a large range of possible career paths.
Our goal for the undergraduate majors is to provide a challenging curriculum and an undergraduate research experience. We seek not only to teach astronomy but also a good knowledge of mathematics and physics. We also seek to develop in the students a good understanding of and facility with the scientific method of solving problems. A secondary goal is to bring to the UA excellent students of the physical sciences, who are attracted by the international reputation of its astronomical research activities. The Department of Astronomy therefore endeavors to provide for its majors a program that maintains ease of transfer to other disciplines and careers.
Enrollment and Graduation Rates
The UA Astronomy program attracts a relatively large number of undergraduate majors. The most recent tabulation by the American Institute of Physics shows our program to be one of the six largest in the country. Some 61% of undergraduate Astronomy majors are non-Arizona residents, approximately twice the University average.
There is significant attrition between entering freshmen and graduating seniors, attributable to several factors. Some first and second year students find the physics and math prerequisites more difficult than anticipated and choose other majors. Career prospects in Astronomy may seem less attractive or remunerative than other fields,
including other physical sciences and engineering. Experience in research projects may convince some that Astronomy is not for them. These attrition rates appear to be comparable to other public universities with large Astronomy major enrollments, e.g., University of Washington.
Enrollment in the B.S. program increased substantially from 2001 to 2003/2004 (Table 1), then decreased beginning in 2005 and has been relatively stable in the past 2 years. There are probably multiple reasons for the decline between 2004 and 2007, some external to the program. This period marked the beginning of our mandatory advising system (see below under Advising), coupled with a stricter enforcement of prerequisites in the required major courses. This system was instituted to ensure that students were following the recommended curriculum and course sequence, thereby leading to successful completion of the program by all our majors. When this was first put in place, there was a noticeable drop in the number of declared lower division (Freshmen and Sophomore) Astronomy majors, i.e., a winnowing out of students less likely to finish the degree, which led to decreased numbers of upper division majors in subsequent years. This system has been in place for about 4 years and upper division enrollments appear to have stabilized by the 2009/10 academic year.
Table 1 - Enrollment data for UA Astronomy Majors, Fall semester
Year No. Jrs. Srs.
2001 69 31 37
2002 77 34 43
2003 83 31 53
2004 83 31 52
2005 58 27 31
2006 51 18 33
2007 43 19 24
2008 41 20 21
2009 49 26 23
The graduation rate for B.S. degrees showed a similar increase and decrease with a time lag of about 1.5 - 2 years, but with a larger year to year variation in number of degrees. The average number of B.S. degrees conferred annually over the past 8 academic years is 12.8 (Table 2). The number of B.S. degrees in 2007/8 and 2008/9 was only half this average, due in part to the stricter enforcement of course prerequisites noted above. Classes in the first two or three years after the stricter policy was in place included some students who had not taken the recommended course sequence, and consequently had to delay their graduation in order to meet the requirements, leading to a significant number of "5th year seniors" in the program. We believe this situation is now resolving for our current classes of majors and, based on lower division enrollments, B.S. degree completion numbers will return to the average of the past several years.
The fraction of women B.S. recipients from Fall 2001 through Spring 2009 (see Table 2) is 46%, equal to the average for all U.S. Astronomy degree programs in 2003. [ref: American Institute of Physics Report on Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2005] Since this fraction is substantially higher than the fraction of women who earn Ph.D. degrees (31% in 2006) or who have faculty appointments (17% in 2006) in Astronomy nationwide, our program will, over time, help to increase the representation of women in the field.
Table 2 - B.S. degrees awarded by academic year
Year Total Men Women Double-major w/ Physics
2001/2 15 10 5 11
2002/3 11 6 5 9
2003/4 14 8 6 13
2004/5 24 11 13 21
2005/6 10 4 6 9
2006/7 15 9 6 10
2007/8 7 4 3 5
2008/9 6 3 3 6
Totals 102 55 47 84
Curriculum. Under the guidance of the departmental Academic Program Committee, we continue to strive to improve the uniformity and level at which the upper division majors courses are taught, while enlarging the pool of faculty who teach those courses. The course ASTR 250, which was created to provide a serious physics- and math-based survey of astrophysics to freshmen and sophomores, has been made a required part of the major curriculum. ASTR 250 fills a recognized need for a lower division introductory course which both challenges and stimulates early in the major.
Advising. Currently 7 faculty serve as undergraduate advisors. Each advisor is assigned 10 to 15 students, who are required to see their advisor at least once each semester. We have enforced this advising requirement by blocking all Astronomy majors’ registration for classes until they meet with their advisors to review their progress and selection of courses.
Research Opportunities. A significant effort has gone into identifying and connecting students to research opportunities with Astronomy faculty, Steward Observatory research staff, and other astronomy research centers in Tucson. The Astronomy Department also participates in the NASA Arizona Space Grant Consortium. The opportunity for work on research projects outside the classroom is a major attraction for students to come to the UA to study astronomy.
Exit surveys of graduating seniors indicate that the research experience is very positive for the great majority of our students. Citing from the May 2005 exit survey conducted by the College of Science, for example, of 15 Astronomy majors responding (out of 22), all had had research experience, 11 had paid research positions, and 11 had 2 or more semesters of research activity. Examples of comments from these students on their perceived value of the research experience include:
- "Research is the ultimate application of what we have learned in our classes. I have found that I learned more in my research that what I did in class. Further, when I used what I had learned in class for my research, I found that I remember it far better."
- "My research experience at UA and outside has been very positive, I would say it was more important in most respects than my class experience. It kept me motivated in classes because I knew what I learned in class could be applied at work."
- "I actually went through the procedures of scientific inquiry and reporting of findings to peers, which is not taught with bookwork in the classroom, and is only briefly covered in lab courses. Plus I will gain publications and attendance at conferences."
- "My research experience was invaluable. I have gained computing skills and exposure to real-world research that I could never have received in a classroom."
- "The research was of considerable value because it allowed me to network with influential people in my field of study. It is now helping me obtain a job."
Enrollment and graduation data are given in Tables 1 and 2 and have been discussed above. Beyond these statistics, however, we can ask: Do students who remain with the program to receive the degree actually reach the goals they have set out to achieve? Through informal tracking of recent graduates (via exit surveys and contacts with former fellow-students, faculty advisors, and research supervisors), we have the following picture of post-graduation outcomes for the 102 students who received a bachelor’s degree in Astronomy from Fall 2001 through Spring 2009.
(1) Enrolled in or completed graduate school in Astronomy or related physical science: 56 (55%)
(2) Employed in technology firm or research organization: 12 (12%)
(3) Science educator: 6 (6%)
(4) Other non-science position or studies: 12 (12%)
(5) No information available: 16 (16%)
These figures suggest that students are generally achieving the kinds of goals for which the program is intended. Over 70% of our undergraduate degree recipients move on to graduate studies in Astronomy or related fields, positions in science- and technology-related companies, or jobs as science educators.