Introduction to Astronomy

John Weiss
Carleton College


A class aimed on non-science majors, we look at our understanding of the solar system and how we know what we know. The class is aimed at active learning with students spend a great deal of time in the class in group activities, often evaluating or synthesizing information; the final project was a self-selected term-long observing activity and presentation of their findings.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites and is not a pre-requisite to any other course. Most of the students are non-science majors looking to get a distribution requirement satisfied.

Course Content:

The course focuses on the solar system, although understanding of stellar evolution and formation is also built in. Students spend about half of every class period in small groups doing activities ranging from calculation-based activities, to light-lab-like activities, to evaluation of new theories presented.

Course Goals:

Students should learn what science is and what kinds of knowledge it is good for.
Students should learn how to use the scientific method
Students should have some fun with the material
Students should learn more about the planets and universe

Course Features:

We frequently do activities where students are asked to used scientific tools to evaluate images and develop their own theories. They are also often asked to evaluate other theories (like the Big Bang or Dark Matter) in terms of how plausible they seem and what evidence they would gather to test the theory.

Course Philosophy:

Students who take Introductory Astronomy will not, in general, go on to really use the material much. It's not a class most people can generally apply often. However, it is a fun topic that most people find interesting. As such, it's a great way to teach them about what science is and is not. This lesson, I think, is more valuable than any other I might teach them.
My secondary goals are that they enjoy the experience (because it does no good if they walk away hating science) and that in 10 years' time, if they open a newspaper and read some interesting new finding on, say, Mars, they'll have some context in which to interpret it.


The final, term-long observing projects let them show whether they can ask a question, formulate an observing experiment to answer the question, do the observations, and then interpret and present the data.


Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

The textbook, "The Cosmic Perspective", closely aligns with my teaching philosophy.