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What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school course?

  1. Oct 20, 2010 #1
    A quick explanation for my thread - I've been a physics teacher for 10 years, but I've always wanted to learn more about stars and space. So I took two years off to study for an MSc. in Astrophysics. I'm writing my thesis on something pretty non-standard for astro nerds: I'm trying to write a new syllabus for a high school level astrophysics course.

    I would very much like to hear your opinions on what you think would be important topics to include in a high school astrophysics class. Astronomers, physicists, high school students, anyone who is interested in astronomy can be a help!

    I've already got plenty of ideas about topics that I think could be useful, but I think it could be much better to also include your opinions.

    The syllabus I'm working on may actually be used by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IB), which is a worldwide course of study for high school students. Astrophysics is an optional topic within the IB Physics course right now, and I'm collaborating with the IB to develop a new Astrophysics syllabus for them. So, your ideas could end up affecting hundreds of thousands of students worldwide!

    Some topics should be included because they are key facts, some topics should be included because they capture students' imaginations, while other topics could be included because they show that science is a changing field - there are lots of questions that we still don't know the answers to!
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  3. Oct 20, 2010 #2
    Re: What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school cours

    I thought this was a trick question at first. Very few High Schools offer the course. It is pretty depressing when you think about it. Would it be wrong to say these types of courses should be offered at a younger age? Junior high to late elementary maybe? Any reply on this matter would help. This is a topic that has been on my mind for some time.
  4. Oct 20, 2010 #3


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    Re: What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school cours

    Interesting question, I'll take a stab at it. I would structure it starting with the Earth and moving outward, something like this:

    (1) Brief history of astronomy.
    (2) Description of astronomical coordinates and astronomical instruments.
    (3) Orbits of the Earth and moon and their impacts - day/night, seasons, lunar phases, etc.
    (4) Brief tour of our solar system.
    (5) Description of stars and stellar evolution
    (6) Nearby stars, stellar clusters, and exoplanets.
    (7) Structure of our galaxy
    (8) Types of galaxies and tour of nearby galaxies.
    (9) Cosmology, including the origin and future of the universe.
    (10) Unanswered questions and planned future observations.

    That's a start. Of course there's much more that could be covered.
  5. Oct 21, 2010 #4
    Re: What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school cours

    To BillHicks,

    This was not at all a trick question. This is precisely the issue. Around the world, there are very few astrophysics courses in high school. I think that with the lagging numbers of people choosing to go into the field, it's important to offer science courses at the high school level that capture their imaginations. At the very least, promoting scientific literacy among students is also key.

    I've found that high school students love learning about the stars and galaxies and the universe. It's a topic that almost teaches itself, since one can use their enthusiasm to help drive the class to really interesting questions.

    Phyzguy, thank you for your comments. I've thought about it for a while, but very much appreciate your response. I very much liked your suggestions. Looking at them, I can then add a few:

    -The different ways of knowing the distance to stars (parallax method for close stars, then Cepheid variables for further, and perhaps including Supernovae as standard candles for very distant galaxies).
    -Evidence for dark matter and for dark energy (having covered supernovae as standard candles can then lead nicely to using them to discover that the universe is expanding at an expanding rate)
    -The search for exoplanets (radial velocity method, transits, astrometry, gravitational lensing)

    Any further suggestions are welcome!

    As I wrote before, the syllabus that I write may very well be used for hundreds of thousands of students taking the 'IB' around the world! Here in Denmark where I live, astronomy is only briefly covered. I'm Canadian, and in my home country, it's also not taught on any large scale. I went to high school in the US, and my research about the american system also shows that it is not taught consistently from state to state (I was lucky to have a course at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, at least!). It's something that really SHOULD be included in a high school course of study! Why not offer a science course in a subject that students already have an innate interest?
  6. Oct 21, 2010 #5
    Re: What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school cours

    BillHicks, my research so far has shown that astronomy is covered in some ways in many elementary and junior high classes in Europe, Canada and the U.S. However, it seems very much absent from high school. This is when they can learn much deeper topics and really get their heads filled with mind-blowing ideas! I love teaching students about the questions that are really tough or impossible to answer. Things like 'How big is the Universe?'. 'What will be it's fate?'. 'Was there anything before the big bang?' 'What evidence leads us to this crazy sounding big bang theory?'

    High school students can have the math skills necessary to start really figuring out interesting things. They can themselves calculate the mass of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. The astrophysics course in the IB as it stands now is non calculus based, which isn't really such a limitation.

    Although I'm now working on a specific IB option within an IB Physics class, my goal is to continue my work and try to offer to teachers a complete course on Astrophysics that can be offered anywhere. This is just the first step. (I'm hoping to continue my research and do a Ph.D in Physics Education Research, and try to see what I can do to help give teachers something easy for them to use and thus encourage them to offer a course).
  7. Oct 21, 2010 #6

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    Re: What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school cours

    High school encompasses a pretty big range in skills - the seniors are 30% older than the freshmen. I think it would help to decide at what level you want to cover this: freshmen? seniors? What prereqs would there be? Algebra? Trig? Physics? I think your topic list would have to emerge from that.
  8. Oct 21, 2010 #7
    Re: What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school cours

    The IB Physics course is a two-year class, taught in the final years of high school. It is equivalent to the american Junior and Senior level. (Canadian 11th and 12th grade). Students are usually 16 or 17 when they start the course, and are normally 18 or so when they're finished.

    As far as prerequisites, students taking this course have up to grade 10 math, which in the IB will cover algebra, geometry, trigonometry. They will at the same time as taking physics need to be taking one math class, which will include algebra, geometry and trigonometry in much more detail, as well as calculus (differentiating and integrating), normally.

    The physics course is non-calculus based. Here is a list of the topics in the IB Physics course to give you an idea of what they will likely have covered already. (students learn all of the topics below, and then they will learn two optional topics, one of which is astrophysics, the one I'm interested in updating).

    1. Physical Measurement (vectors, scalars, uncertainties)
    2. Mechanics (kinematics, forces, work, energy, power, circular motion)
    3. Thermal Physics (heat, temperature, heat capacity, latent heat, phase changes)
    4. Oscillations and Waves (simple harmonic motion, forced oscillations, resonance, superposition of waves, properties of waves)
    5. Electric currents (potential difference, current, resistance, simple circuits)
    6. Fields and Forces (graviational, electric and magnetic forces and fields)
    7. Atomic and Nuclear (atom, alpha, beta, gamma decay, reactions, fusion, fission, binding energy)
    8. Energy, Power, Climate change (energy sources, fossil fuels, non-fossil fuels, nuclear power plants)

    Then students who are taking the higher level physics course will take the following topics in addition to the ones above:

    9. Motion in fields (2D projectiles, gravitational and electric field, potential and energy, orbital motion)
    10. Thermal Physics (laws of thermodynamics, PV diagrams, entropy)
    11. Wave Phenomena (standing waves, doppler effect, diffraction, resolution, rayleigh criteria, malus' law)
    12. Electromagnetic Induction (induced EMF, alternating current, transformers, Lenz' law, Faraday's law)
    13. Quantum and Nuclear (photoelectric effect, debroglie wavelength, heisenberg's uncertainty principle, schrodinger wave equation (very simply though!), decay curves, deriving decay constant)
    14. Digital Technology (binary, analog vs. digital, how CCDs work)

    They will have learned all of this usually before they start the astrophysics optional topic. Their math skills will be such that they can easily do algebra, graphs and trigonometry, but their level of calculus will differ.
  9. Oct 21, 2010 #8


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    Re: What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school cours

    I wonder... Perhaps moving the other way - that is, from the Universe to the Earth - would put a new perspective on the thing. After all that would be the simplest way to show we are in no way special, we are just part of something much larger.

    Just a thought.
  10. Oct 21, 2010 #9
    Re: What topics would be covered in an ideal astronomy/astrophysics high school cours

    Thank you for the comments so far! Most courses I've seen that cover Astrophysics in some way do start from Earth and move their way outward. At Copenhagen University where I study, they chose to do it the opposite way as you just suggested, Borek. It worked out just fine for me! First course was about cosmology, the second was about galaxies, then a course about interstellar medium and star formation, and finally a course about stellar structure and stellar evolution. That's how their B.Sc. courses are run. The M.Sc. courses I've taken so far are a bit more 'pick and choose'. I took courses in a bit of everything just for fun - cosmology, dark matter, astrobiology, instrumentation, telescope design, satellite systems, etc.

    A high school course should definitely have more structure than that. Either starting from the earth and moving outward, or starting outward and then moving inward. I do like the comment of showing students that we aren't necessarily all that special. Although since we haven't found life out there yet, perhaps that makes us all the more special?

    I'm reminded of a story I read a very long time ago about what aliens might think about us if they were to see us: http://baetzler.de/humor/meat_beings.html
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