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Astronomy Syllabus

Welcome to Astronomy! I look forward to sharing with you my fascination with the night sky and all the wonderful objects that populate it. It’s a big universe out there, and we’ll have a lot of fun studying it.

Big Ideas

Although we will study many topics in astronomy this year, there are a few very important concepts we need to understand. They are

  1. We can learn about the astronomical objects using careful observation and our knowledge of laboratory physics. Our knowledge of the universe is described using scientific theories, supported with data and experimentation.
  2. A lot of information is encoded in the radiation that we detect. We can learn much more about the universe when we use the whole electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays, than if we just restrict ourselves to visible light.
  3. Planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe itself are not static but rather evolve over time. When we observe objects in the sky, we see them not as they are now, but as they were in the past when they first emitted the light we detect today.
  4. The cosmic microwave background shows us that the universe began with a massive explosion called The Big Bang. We can use high energy particle physics and particle accelerators to study earliest stages of the universe.

Overview/Learning Goals

This course is focused on stars, astrophysics, and cosmology. You won't be learning about planets and solar systems in this course. Our textbook will be "Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmology" by Bennett and Donahue. This is a college level textbook for introductory astronomy. The main topics we will discuss and their sequence is listed below.

  1. The historical development of astronomy as a science, from ancient cultures to Galileo. The development of scientific models to describe the universe and how they evolved based on observations and the development of new technologies. (Chapters 2 and 3)
  2. Solar astronomy - studying the properties, features and structure of the sun (Chapter 14)
  3. The properties of light and electromagnetic radiation in general. Blackbody radiation in particular. (Chapter 5)
  4. The properties of stars and the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. (Chapter 15)
  5. How stars evolve over time and create all the elements in the universe. (Chapter 17)
  6. How stars die - white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes! (chapter 18)
  7. Galaxies, cosmology, and the Big Bang (chapters 20-22).

By the end of the year, you’ll be able to explain how a white dwarf is different from a neutron star, and describe to your parents how black holes evaporate. You’ll know what a quasar is, and explain how Type-1a supernovas have shown us that not only is the universe expanding, it’s accelerating. We’ll discuss this whole dark-matter/dark-energy thing, and learn how the fate of the entire universe may depend on the nature of sub-atomic particles that have yet to be discovered. And that’s just our universe – we’ll find out why there just might be others out there.

Course Expectations and Learning Activities

I will lecture on each topic listed above and there will be assigned reading from the textbook and suggested problems that you should be able to answer to be prepared for the unit quizzes (see below). In addition to lectures and reading, each unit will have several one or two class period activities to help you explore the content in depth.


Each unit will have assigned reading and 10-12 recommended homework problems. Homework is not collected nor graded. It is meant for you to judge your own understanding and to stimulate questions and discussions with classmates and with me. If you can answer the homework questions and you pay attention to the lectures, you will be well prepared for the quizzes.

Quizzes and Quiz Corrections

Each unit will have at least one closed-book, closed-notes quiz to assess your conceptual understanding and breadth of understanding. Students who score lower than 90% on the quizzes are expected to submit quiz corrections. Quiz corrections carry more weight than quizzes so it's critical you turn in corrections. Details regarding quiz corrections can be found on the course website. Students who score 90% or higher automatically receive full credit for quiz corrections.


Each unit will have a free response test that will assess your depth of understanding. Typically the tests are more challenging than quizzes and will also assess your mathematical understanding of the unit.

Learning Activities

Learning activities are short explorations, often mathematically based, that help you grapple with the more challenging concepts discussed in the class. Think of them as labs. You will report your results from the activities using in the same way you report your quiz corrections.


Projects are thorough investigations, often using real astronomical data that require you to combine multiple concepts and mathematical analysis from multiple units throughout the year. Projects show me how well you can apply your learning to realistic astronomical problems and investigations. Two large culminating projects are done in the 3rd and 4th quarter, they require several weeks of work with a partner, and serve as final exams for the course. You will report the results of your project via a scientific paper, a technical presentation to an audience of engineers and astronomers, and a scientific poster.


Grades are assigned on the following scales using the specified weighting. The weighting is approximate and may be slightly adjusted from quarter to quarter.

 A>= 90%
 B>= 80% 
 C>= 70%
 D>= 60%

 Quizzes and Quiz Corrections   50%
 Tests, Projects, and Activities  50%

Late Work

I understand that life can be unpredictable but I expect you to keep up with work in this class. If you cannot meet a deadline you must discuss the possibility of late work with me in advance. I may be willing to grant extensions in some cases if given advance warning. Asking for an extension on the day an assignment is due will almost never work. Late work will be accepted if it is very good quality and will receive a high failing grade, typically 50%. Marginal or low quality late work will not be accepted. No feedback will be given for late work. Missing work will earn you a zero percent.

Timeframes for submitting late work will be negotiated between you and me. If you are absent on a due date the timeframe for submitting your late work will be as specified in the student handbook.