Phy 118 Contemporary Astronomy - Warren Wilson College

Fall Semester, 2011, Donald F. Collins,  Office Hours: Spidel 205,
e-mail:  (Remove the "NoSpam")

This course satisfies the General Education Science Requirement.

The main objective is to learn about astronomy, celestial objects, and the solar system from a scientific perspective, to make quantitative observations, and to appreciate the knowledge of the sky.  The list below is more specific:
Contemporary Astronomy introduces the concepts in astronomy through classroom activities, observation sessions, and projects. While astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, our understanding of astronomy has undergone a great transformation in recent years with the advent of advanced instrumentation, large telescopes, space probes, and the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes.  Research in astronomy has also undergone a recent transformation with the improvement of small telescopes, cameras, and instruments that have become much more accessible through the electronics revolution.  Thus amateur astronomers are capable of contributing to active research in a manner never before accessible.

COURSE DESIGN.  Textbook: Discovering the Universe, 8th  ed. by Comins/Kaufmann.  Class time will be spent discussing the material, developing observing and calculating skills, conducting laboratory activities which match and reinforce the material in the text, evening observing sessions, and writing about the material. 

Each student will also need to have a laboratory notebook to record the activity results and to plot graphs.  The laboratory notebook must consist of a hard-bound composition book.  Please use the laboratory notebook only for astronomy.  No spiral notebooks.  Computer output and graphs will be fastened into the laboratory notebook - no loose pages.    The Laboratory noteboo must be brought to every class and observation session.  Students may use the laboratory notebook as the notebook for class notes as well as laboratory notes.  

Students will be required to read selected portions of the textbook and other resources (Sky and Telescope, Scientific American, World Wide Web, etc.) which relate  classroom activities and observation projects, and will be required to describe the corresponding material with each activity report.  Lectures will be kept to a minimum. About 1/2 to 1/3 of each class period will be spent in pairing groups (two peers in each group) discussing practice quizzes and solving "puzzles".  Nine of the class periods will be laboratory sessions making measurements, analyzing photos of objects, making models, etc.  These measurement labs will be written up as laboratory reports.

The class will meet for 5 required visual whole class observing sessions.  These will be held on Thursday evenings beginning at 8:30 pm for about 2 hours when the weather is clear.  Because the weather changes rapidly, the class should assemble in Spidel regardless of the weather.  In case of cloudy skies another activity may be conducted.

Observing session topics:
  1.  Learning the sky - naked eye, binoculars, and star charts.
  2.  Use the telescope for bright objects (Jupiter, Beta Cygni, Moon, M22, M20, M11, M31).  Students will have "hands-on" practice with the telescopes
  3.  Measure elevation of Polaris
  4.  Photograph the Moon with a digital camera.  Everyone takes a photograph that will be used later for lunar measurements
  5.  View stars from high elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We will use the first clear night from the following dates: (Sept.1; Sept. 15; Sept. 22; or Sept 29).  The BRP trip will require a 2 1/2 to 3 hour session leaving Spidel at 8:00 pm and returning about 11:00 pm.

Each student also is required to attend two 2-hour deep-sky photo sessions on a sign-up basis.  These sessions will be held on Monday and Wednesday evenings and on some weekend nights (Friday, or Saturday) when the skies are clear.  Thursday evenings after all the full-class observing sessions are completed will also be available.  The deep-sky photo sessions will set-up and align the computer-driven telescope; use the CCD deep-sky camera; and obtain photos of a deep sky object: galaxy, nebula, globular cluster, comet (if available), outer planet (up to Pluto), or research measuring a cataclysmic variable star.  Some sessions may last 4 hours or longer, in which the participating students may fulfill the total 4 hour requirement for photo sessions.  Students will also gain "hands-on" practice with the visual telescope during these deep-sky sessions (while the computer and CCD camera are making multiple exposures).

Logistics for photo sessions:  Sign-up sheets will be posted in class for the Monday, Wednesday, (and Thursday) photo sessions.  We need at least 2 students at each photo session, otherwise the session will be cancelled.  Weekends with good weather will also be available.  Each student is required to attend two successful observational photo sessions (not clouded out, successful images obtained).  Sign-up lists for each week-night session will be available about 1 week before the scheduled session.  When a student is signed-up, he/she is committed to come to the session for the full 2 hours.  A student may cancel before 4:30 PM on the day of the scheduled session either by crossing his/her name off the list or notifying the instructor by telephone before the 4:30 pm deadline.  Any student who fails to appear at an observing session will be required to attend an extra 3rd photo session (in addition to the required two sessions) or lose 5% of the course grade.  It becomes very time-consuming for the faculty to help with several sessions per week outside of classtime, therefore it is very important that students honor their committments to meet faculty when they have appointments outside of regular class hours.  A student may have to sign-up for several sessions before success with the weather.  Students are urged to get their photo sessions completed early to avoid jammed schedules that come late in the semester.

Photo Session Summaries.  To receive credit for a photo session, the student must submit up to a 2-page summary of the object that was photographed within one week of the observation date.  The summary should include an astrophysical description of the object as well as size, distance, and location.  What are the astrophysical processes going on in the object?  Also, the summary should include the size and distance relative to other objects in the universe (solar system, within or outside of galaxy, etc).  The summaries count for half of the 10 % deep sky session.  The processed astrophotos from each photo session will be posted on the Internet - this enables students to copy and paste their photos into their word-processed summaries.

Physics Photo of the Week.  Several astro photos will be published in Physics Photo of the Week and the students' summaries will be used for the descriptions.  Any students whose summaries are included will be credited on the page along with students' names who helped with the photo session(s).

Weekend sessions for photo observations:  Weekends with precious good weather are often optimal times to obtain extended time on variable stars and eclipsing binary stars.  Weekend sessions (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights) may also be more convenient than weeknights for some students.  When the weather is good on a weekend and other factors are favorable the professor will send an e-mail to all students in the class inviting anyone to come.  There will be no sign-ups for weekend sessions, but attending a weekend session for 2 hours certainly counts for one of the required photo sessions.

Extra sessions:  Any student is welcome to participate in coming to any extra session (beyond the required 2 sessions).  Five percentage points in the course score will benefit from the first extra 2-hour extra session (along with the written summary)

Certain class announcements will be e-mailed to all students.  The e-mail feature of Campus-Web will be used for the directory of student's e-mail.  If a student uses a non-WWC e-mail address (e.g. Hotmail, gmail), he/she must set-up the WWC e-mail account to forward the WWC mail to the hotmail account (explained here).  It is each student's responsibility to check for e-mail messages, and to maintain his/her e-mail account (preventing the in-box from overfilling)  If the student's WWC account is non-functional, the student must see Computer Services to get the account repaired.  Facebook will not be used.

Contemporary Astronomy is not exceptionally difficult material.  However, the requirements involve a lot of work on the students' part.  There are many activities to be summarized; it requires evening viewing sessions - sometimes at uncomfortable hours of the night; there are two projects required with write-ups; the variable weather upsets schedules.  Obtaining deep sky photos and learning about the sky around us is very rewarding to the diligent student.

EVALUATION.  The evaluation of students' progress in the course is divided among 5 different types of assignments indicated below:

  1. Quantitative Lab Reports -  30%.   These are "labs".  There are 9 lab experiments required and each is to be written as a word-processed document and printed.
  2. Mini Project I - 10%.  Report from out-of-class reading on a topic.  Due: Oct. 27, 2011.
  3. Mini Project II - 10%.  Creative project (poem, song, short story, art work) or a report on an astronomical object.  Due: Dec. 12, 2011.
  4. Attendance - 15%.
  5. Exams - 30% 35%.  There will be four exams - each exam requires about 30 minutes to complete.  Other activities will be conducted for the remainder of class time on exam days.
  6. On-Line Tutorials - 5%.  Beginning with Oct. 2, there will be a number of on-line tutorials that review the learning.  Each totorial will close after the appropriate exam.  (The class voted overwhelmingly to include a requirement for the tutorials.  The grade is a "gift" - students can repeat the tutorials as many times as needed for a good score before they close.
QUANTITATIVE MEASUREMENTS (30%)  Nine quantitative experiments will be conducted throughout the course.  Many of the measurements will resemble a physics lab as well as an astronomy activity.  It must be remembered, however, that physics underlies all of astronomy; therefore an understanding of astronomical concepts requires the understanding of basic physic concepts. No prior knowledge of physics is required, however.  A word-processed (or typewritten) report of each experimental activity is due on Wednesday at class time in the week following the classroom experiment.  The due dates will be plainly indicated on the daily schedule.  Each report should include the following:  

Written instructions will be distributed and placed on-line for most (but not all) of the quantitative activities.  Some of these written instructions will resemble "cookbooks" in that they contain some "fill-in-the-blanks" questions.  However, the student's reports should not be mere lists, but succinct prose written in complete sentences and paragraphs.  The student reports of the activities should consist of verbal descriptions of the activities, results, and discussions, as well as graphs of the data.   Many activity instructions will ask a "What do you think?" question involving an astronomical or physical concept introduced in the beginning of the activity.  The summaries must discuss the "what do you think" predictions as well as the results which were learned or contradicted by the experiments.  The suggested length for each report is two to three pages.  The due dates for all the reports will be indicated on daily schedule.  The dates of the experimental activities is variable and subject to weather.  Therefore the schedule is not published in advance.

The planned measurements laboratories consist of the following (the actual order depends on the weather): 

  1. Sun tracking
  2. Measurement of lunar feature sizes
  3. Planet tracking
  4. Rotation period of the sun from sunspot tracking
  5. Assembly of and measurements with a simple telescope
  6. Properties of light and color
  7. Brightness of pseudo star as a function of distance
  8. Measurement of stellar magnitudes from digital images
  9. Analysis of color and magnitude of cluster stars from digital images

Mini Project I (10 %).   Each student is expected to conduct a reading mini-project.  The research project will involve reading research - obtaining and interpreting literature from three types of sources:  books, journals such as Sky and Telescope and Scientific American, and the Internet.  For Internet sources, the student will be expected to evaluate the reliability of the source from credentials and corraborative information.  This skill is necessary on account of the freedom of anyone to publish anything on the Internet.  Popular topics include supernovae, comets, meteors, Big Bang, sunspots, black holes, neutron stars, and more.  The mini project report should be typed (word processed), it should include all references, and the references should be cited in the body of the paper using the standard APA style such as: (Collins, 2009).  Students are encouraged to view the APA style tutorial:

The mini project I is due on October 27 - the Thursday after Fall Break Nov. 3, 2011 - the 2nd Thursday after Fall Break.

Project II (10%).  Creative project or special astronomical object.  Students are encouraged to compose a creative astronomy project for their second major project (poem, song, space-art, short story, etc) or a  camera photo project (student needs a tripod and their own digital or film camera).  Such projects include star trails, constellations, planet positions (look-up planet positions at Sky and Telescope).  Creative projects will be graded on  the accuracy of depicting astronomical objects or events.  A song or poem about Pluto should depict accurately some material that is known about the dwarf planet, not a creative piece about its relation to human nature, God, or Walt Disney's cartoon dog.  Alternatively, students may do more extensive research on one of the objects they photographed in a photo session - based on a more technical article than what was reviewed for the observation session summary.   The due date for Project II is Monday, December 12, 2011.

EXAMS (35%).
  Mon, Sep. 12, 2011
Mon, Oct. 10, 2011
Mon, Nov.14, 2011
, Dec.14, 2011

The exams will consist mostly of discussion questions in which the students should show they understand the concepts and the physics involved. Many of the questions will be derived from the Moodle exercises that re-inforce concepts covered in class.  There will also be some mathematical problems addressing issues discussed in class.  

  Regular attendance and participation is required.  Three absences are allowed with no penalty (excused or otherwise).   In order to earn the 5% portion of regular class attendance, the student must have no more than 2 absences from class and whole-class observing sessions.  For any absence beyond 2, the student will lose 1 point up to a maximum of 5 points.   Absences are excused only for extended illness (more than 2 days confined away from classes), family emergency, or varsity athletic events, or field trips in other classes.  Any excused medical or family emergency absence must be documented by medical personnel or Dean of Student's Office.  For planned absences (field trips and athletic events) students must pre-notify the instructor for each planned absence.  In spite of any excused absences, students are responsible for any material missed during class.  Lateness to class (between 1 and 30 minutes) will be counted as half an absence. Please note that the time standard will be the clock in the physics lab which is set to the international time, not the cafeteria clock which often runs slow.  Students arriving beyond 30 minutes late will be counted as absent.  If the instructor is late, each student arriving before the instructor will have one lateness (half absence) cancelled.  Missed exams may be made up only due to sickness, family emergency, varsity (not club) athletics, field trips in other classes.  In the case of planned absences (athletics and field trips) arrangements must be made prior to the absence in order to qualify for make-up.  If a student fails to show for a test due to alarm clock failure the student may make-up the test only for a maximum score of 50%.  Shoes must be worn in class and labs!

LATE PAPERS POLICY.  Lab reports will be due Wednesdays at class time (but not every week since there are nine experiments).  Students should have them printed out the night before.  Papers received after the class time due date will be penalized 10% for lateness.  NO QUANTITATIVE REPORTS MORE THAN ONE WEEK OVERDUE WILL BE ACCEPTED!  Excused absences will provide exceptions to this rule (see the attendance policy above).

SPECIAL NEEDS. If a student needs special consideration due to a diagnosed learning handicap that requires special arrangements such as additional time for exams, taping class sessions, taping exam answers, using classmates' notes, etc. the student must arrange with Ms Deborah Braden - the Educational Access Coordinator, (Dodge) during the first week of classFor the legal protection of all parties, faculty may not grant the accommodations without the approval of the Educational Access Coordinator.   Students are encouraged  to develop ways of coping with special learning needs.  However, to be accommodated, students must communicate their needs privately the Educational Access Coordinator during the first week of classes, not the day of the test or the day before an assignment is due.  A learning handicapped student is still responsible for learning the material in the course.  The methods of testing and evaluation may be varied to accommodate the handicapped student.

ACADEMIC HONESTY.  It is expected that all work submitted for credit consist of the student's own work, not copied from someone else's notes.  If students work in teams (maximum of two persons per team), the other team member must be identified in the notes.  The discussion of the results must be in the own words of each team member.  Verbatim copying of notes or copying from other sources without acknowledgment result in severe penalties: failure in the assignment for first offense; failure in the course for the second offense.  Two or more students who submit identical papers (or papers with some words changed) will be prosecuted for plagiarism. 

Donald F. Collins -August, 2011. Tel: 298-4131 (H); 771-3702 (Office); e-mail: (remove the "-no-spam")