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Astronomy

Overview: 

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.

As is true with similar Astronomy degree programs across the nation, our astronomy program relies heavily upon a foundation of physics and mathematics, through courses that are taught within those respective departments, and not by faculty within the Astronomy Dept. Therefore, the quality of our program relies heavily on the quality of instruction they receive within the Physics and Math Departments at the UA, as well as the instruction they receive within our department.

Expected Learning Outcomes: 

Following are the expected learning outcomes (LOs) for UA Astronomy B.S. Majors.

Astronomy B.S. Majors will:

LO1: Demonstrate the ability to meaningfully analyze, apply and integrate the principle findings, common applications, current problems, fundamental techniques, and underlying theory of the astronomy discipline;

LO2: Employ discipline skills related to the observational techniques, instrumentation, computational methods, and software applications used to investigate modern astrophysical phenomena and problems;

LO3: Develop proficiency with communicating, translating and interpreting fundamental astronomical concepts and research results in oral and/or written formats;

LO4: Conduct guided research and/or develop mastery-knowledge of a specific area of the discipline of astronomy; and

LO5: Participate in the scholarly, ethical, and discipline specific practices of the field at an emergent level.

Assessment Activities: 

A variety of formative and summative assessments are used to determine the extent to which learners have developed competencies related to the above five Learning Objectives:

1.     Astronomy majors take 36 units of credit that include a broad coverage of the various aspects of the astronomy discipline. Responses to select questions from homework, course exams, and cumulative finals are evaluated to assess the degree to which learners have developed discipline fluency. In general, the distributions to the scores of the questions/exams demonstrate that these assessments are appropriately challenging and serving to differentiate the level of fluency being achieved by the learners. 

2.     Astronomy students take ASTR 302 (Observational Astronomy) and PHYS 305 (Computational Physics; note that this course is predominantly taught by Astronomy Dept. faculty even though it is listed within the Physics Dept.). The activities, projects and products performed/created by students through their work in these courses are evaluated using both peer and expert formative and summative assessment.  Students are routinely asked to evaluate each other’s work and provide meaningful feedback.  Additionally, students receive feedback from faculty. Through this process students gain insight into their level of understanding of the aspects of the discipline afforded by these activities and projects. 

For example, PHYS 305 is taught specifically to emulate the research environment. Students work collaboratively in small groups to solve an astronomical problem of their group’s choosing. Each group must work on separate problems. If one group proposes to do similar work another group has already proposed, they must either choose a new project (having been “scooped” in their research), or demonstrate that the other group is following an incorrect path to solving the problem at hand. Once projects are complete, all students read and evaluate all projects based on the rubric provided by the instructor. In the event two or more projects tie for the top rated project, the instructor makes the final decision.

3.     Many of the degree courses have significant writing and presentation components allowing for students to develop proficiency with communicating their understanding of astronomy concepts, research results and other aspects of the discipline.

For example, in ASTR 296 (Topics of Astronomical Research), students learn about the current research that various faculty in the department are engaged in, and how it fits into the broader field of the current state of astronomical knowledge. Each week, students are required write a report about the work of these various faculty, developing both their understanding of astronomy, and their ability to effectively communicate about its findings.

4.     Students take a minimum of 3 units of credit ASTR 492, 498 or 499 (Senior Independent Research), which can be taken all together with one faculty advisor, or it can be taken multiple times with a variety of advisors. Prior to beginning the research, the advisor and students develop a “contract of work” including the overall scope of the project, benchmarks, the number of hours the student is expected to work on their own and number of hours they will meet with their advisor each week.  At this time, it is established how the student’s work will be assessed. In addition to astronomy research, students may also work on astronomy education research. In many cases, this research leads to scholarly publications in which the student is a co-author, or earns an acknowledgement in the paper.

The above examples (1-4) are provided to illustrate the breadth of assessment activities the department engages in, which include both formative and summative assessments of the different learning outcomes.

Assessment Findings: 

Though historically the Astronomy department has not maintained extensive records or formally engaged in assessment of the undergraduate courses, in recent years the department has been working to rectify this based on the outcomes of the previous APR. The department has begun to engage in activities to improve the drop, fail, and withdrawal (DFW) rate within the Majors population, in particular between the ASTR 250 and ASTR 300A courses.  The programmatic changes are based on the following narrative findings of the Department’s Academic Program Committee (APC). In general, these findings are:     

·       Faculty’s expectations for the level of physics and mathematics preparedness that students should have when entering the ASTR 250/300 courses exceeds the actual level of achievement of the students;

·       The level of discipline fluency represented by the instruction in these courses is intellectually beyond the developmental level of the students; and

·       The assessments used in these courses (homework, mid-semester tests, and cumulative final exams) do not appropriately differentiate between the learners over a significant range of achievement, specifically resulting in consistently low average course scores regardless of the learners actual understanding of the relevant discipline topics taught in the course.

An outcome of the findings listed above can be evidenced by looking at the student enrollments and completions for the program’s first two courses in the Majors sequence.  For the Spring 2013 ASTR 250 course and the Fall 2013 ASTR 300A course, we found a larger than expected fraction of students who did not persist in the major from one course through the next.  In particular, we find that more than 90% of the students who took the first exam, completed ASTR 250. However, greater than 50% of students who completed ASTR 250 did not register for ASTR 300A.

The concern, highlighted by these results, is that the students who leave the program may well have obtained sufficient discipline fluency to persist from ASTR 250 through ASTR 300, but choose not to do so for a variety of reasons, some of which are detailed in the findings above.  As a way of identifying the extent to which the students completing ASTR 250 and staying in the program have acquired sufficient discipline fluency, the Light and Spectroscopy Concept Inventory (LSCI) was administered as a pre-test to all students who enrolled in FALL 2013 ASTR 300A.

The LSCI is a research-validated assessment instrument designed to assess students’ understanding of the fundamental concepts of light and spectroscopy as they relate to understanding the universe, and covers such topics as:

·      The nature of the electromagnetic spectrum, including the interrelationships of wavelength, frequency, energy, and speed

·      Interpretation of Doppler shift as an indication of motion rather than color of an object

·      The correlation between peak wavelength and temperature of a blackbody radiator

·      Relationships between luminosity, temperature, and surface area

·      The connection between spectral features and underlying physical processes and phenomenon

In a national study undertaken by the departments’ Center for Astronomy Education of students’ understanding of the nature of light before and after one semester of instruction in a general education astronomy course (Astro 101), it was found that on average non-astronomy major students at the University of Arizona achieved a post-test score of 50% on the LSCI (Prather et al 2009). In contrast, after one semester of instruction in ASTR 250, our Majors had a class average of 73%, indicating a relatively high level of understanding of the fundamental concepts related to the role light plays in understanding astrophysical topics consistent with the teaching from ASTR 250.  This result tells us that ASTR 250 is succeeding at elevating the discipline fluency of our incoming majors, while simultaneously presenting an academic experience that communicates to a significant number of students (many of whom are successful in ASTR 250) that pursuing an Astronomy major is not for them. 

We report on responses to these findings in the following section.

Change in Response to Findings: 

In response to the above findings, the department and APC have taken several steps in an attempt to reduce the DFW rate, and increase the self-efficacy of students within the Major by increasing and improving the instruction included in the Majors courses.  Changes to the Major include:

·      The introduction of ASTR 196, a course sequenced prior to ASTR 250 explicitly designed to build astronomy content knowledge, problem solving ability, and quantitative/computational skills for freshmen considering an Astronomy major. 

·      The development and administration of a new internal teaching evaluation rubric, modeled on the guidelines of the UA’s Office of Instruction and Assessment (OIA), to help better assess the nature and quality of teaching within our Majors courses including the extent to which active learning strategies were being employed;

·      The identification of instructors using, or willing to use, active engagement learning strategies and assigning them to teach the ASTR 250 and ASTR 300A courses; and

·      The providing of instructional mentoring for all instructors in the department, as well as to graduate student TAs, on best practices in implementing active engagement instructional techniques.

These changes which we made in response to previously mentioned assessment findings have started to have an impact on the teaching and learning of these core courses in the Major. For example, the Fall 2013 ASTR 300A course was taught by a postdoctoral research fellow in the department well versed in active engagement instructional techniques and astronomy education research. Active engagement instructional techniques (such as Think-Pare-Share, Ranking Tasks, Sense-making Tasks for Astronomy, collaborative group problem solving, etc.) were created and employed on a daily basis within the course. Assessments were created that most experts in the field of astronomy would agree required a robust and deep understanding of the course content. These assessments included quantitative reasoning, problem solving (including, for example, derivations), conceptual reasoning, as well as communicating understanding through writing (such as “explain your reasoning” questions).

In the past it has been common for the distribution of scores to have a disproportionately large fraction of students earning values less than 50%, with only a small fraction of the population truly “passing” the assessments.  With the reform course, we found, that while still using rigorous assessments, that evaluated students’ discipline fluency over a greater range of abilities, that the distribution of scores and overall achievement of the students was much improved.  Reported below are the averages for three aspects of the course assessment – note that the distributions are approximately normal (but with small numbers of students).

·      Homework average: ~82%

·      Mid-semester exam average: ~80%

·      Cumulative final exam average: 80%

The Astronomy Dept. and APC are committed to continued reform efforts targeted at improving our students’ overall success in the Majors program.  A significant effort on performing explicit assessments to inform these efforts in ongoing.

Reference

Prather, E. E., Rudolph, A. L., Brissenden, G., and Schlingman, W. M. (2009). “A National Study Assessing the Teaching and Learning of Introductory Astronomy. Part I: The Effect of Interactive Instruction.” American Journal of Physics, 77(4), 320-330.

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Updated date: Wed, 06/01/2016 - 13:59