Intro Astronomy – the Solar System

Declan De Paor, Physics, Old Dominion University


An introduction to the Solar System with an emphasis on the scientific method of inquiry. I incorporate more Earth Science than normal in an astronomy course.

Course Type: Intro Level:Astronomy
Course Size:
greater than 150

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

The course attracts 80% non-major gen eds. Others include pre-service teachers, and undecided. There are 2 required 1.5 hr lectures, a 2 hr lab, and night observations. No prerequisites, but students are expected to have reached Virginia State standards-of-learning in high school math, science, and writing. To stay in the class, students must pass a math test in week 1. Students fail if they miss two labs.

Course Content:

The course includes a review of classical and renascence observations, wandering sun, moon, and planets; recent discoveries by NASA, ESA, etc.; models for the origin and evolution of the system; exoplanets; the origin and evolution of life; and sustainability of life on Earth.

Course Goals:

Students better appreciate the nature of science, have experienced first hand the thrill of observation, understand the surface and sub-surface differences between Venus, Earth, Moon, and Mars, and know how to apply basic math to calculate the force of gravity, density of the Earth, solve Kepler's 3rd Law, etc.

Students recognize and abandon misconceptions.

Course Features:

In addition to lectures and labs, there is a semester long project. Students make a poster-size plot of the terrestrial planets' motion in real time based on their own observations.

I use social media (a facebook group, night observation tweets, in-class texting), polling (, think-pair-share, etc.

TAs and I host a daily Learning Center in place of Office Hours.

Course Philosophy:

The main challenge is to engage 375 gen ed students many of whom are morbidly ill-prepared for college. Students are going to be texting during class so they may as well text me.


Exams test students' reasoning, not just their content knowledge. TAs carry out IRB-compliant testing of course materials in lab.


Syllabus (Zip Archive 207kB May9 12)

References and Notes:

Palen, Smith, and Blumenthal "Understanding Our Universe"
NASA and USGS web sites.