AAS Special Session -- May 2011


Using the Discoveries of Astronomy to Teach Physics

Special Session at the 218th national meeting of the AAS, Boston, MA, May 22-26, 2011

Chair: Charles H. Holbrow, Colgate University & MIT


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Speakers at Boston AAS session "Using the Discoveries of Astronomy
to Teach Physics." Photo by Gina Brissenden

Using Cosmology to Teach Physics
Max Tegmark, MIT.
2:00 PM - 2:20 PM

I describe why I think cosmology is an excellent tool for teaching physics.


Using Exoplanets to Engage Students in Physics
David Charbonneau, Harvard University.
2:20 PM - 2:40 PM

 A hundred planets transiting bright stars are now known, ensuring that at any particular site at least one transit is visible on any given night. Most of these worlds were discovered with 4-inch telescopes, and so the modest telescopes that nest atop the physics buildings of many college campuses are more than adequate to pursue the transit events. Fueled by results from the NASA Kepler Mission and the promise of Earth-like worlds, exoplanets offer an enormous opportunity to engage first-year college students in physics. The simple geometric nature of these systems permits the direct application of introductory mechanics to deduce the basic properties of some planets orbiting other stars. Moreover, by gathering and analyzing their own data, students can understand the fundamentals of experimental science and data analysis. I will discuss the opportunities to engage students in physics through transiting exoplanets, with specific examples drawn from a first-year undergraduate course at Harvard University. I will also review the practical aspects, including software and hardware, of establishing an exoplanet observing lab appropriate for college students.

A Calculus-Level Introductory Physics Course with an Astronomy Theme
Joseph Amato, Colgate University
 2:40 PM - 3:00 PM

Physics from Planet Earth (PPE) is a one-semester, calculus-based introductory course in classical mechanics intended for first year students of physics, chemistry, astronomy and engineering. Most of the core topics in mechanics are included, but many of the examples and applications are drawn from astronomy, space science, and astrophysics. The laws of physics are assigned the task of exploring the heavens - the same task addressed by Newton over 300 years ago at the birth of classical mechanics. How do we know the distance to the Moon, Sun, or other galaxies? How do we know the masses of the Earth, Sun, and other planets and stars, and why do we believe in “missing” mass? As a physics course, PPE concentrates on how we know rather than what we know. Examples and applications include those of historical importance (the Earth-Moon distance, the Earth-Sun distance, Ptolemaic vs. Copernican models, weighing the Earth) as well as those of contemporary interest (Hubble’s Law, rocket propulsion, spacecraft gravity boosts, the Roche limit, search for extrasolar planets, orbital mechanics, pulsars, galactic rotation curves). The course has been taught successfully at Colgate for over a decade, using materials that have been developed and refined during the past 15 years. Developers of PPE are eager to enrich the course by identifying other topics in contemporary astronomy that can be adapted for the first year physics audience.

 Using Planetary Nebulae to Teach Physics
 Karen B. Kwitter, Williams College.
 3:00 PM - 3:10 PM

 We have developed an interactive website, "Gallery of Planetary Nebula Spectra," (www.williams.edu/Astronomy/research/PN/nebulae/) that contains high-quality optical-to-near-infrared spectra, atlas information, and bibliographic references for more than 160 planetary nebulae that we have observed in the Milky Way Galaxy. To make the material more accessible to students, I have created three undergraduate-level exercises that explore physics-related aspects of planetary nebulae. “Emission Lines and Central Star Temperature” uses the presence or absence of emission lines from species with different ionization potentials to rank the temperatures of the exciting stars in a selection of nebulae. “Interstellar Reddening” uses the observed Balmer decrement in a sample of planetary nebulae at different Galactic latitudes to infer the distribution of interstellar dust in the Milky Way. Finally, “Determining the Gas Density in Planetary Nebulae,” which I will focus on here, uses the observed intensity ratio of the 6717 Å and 6731 Å emission lines from singly ionized sulfur to determine the electron density in the nebular gas. These exercises demonstrate that planetary nebula spectra are useful real-world examples illustrating a variety of physical principles, including the behavior of blackbodies, wavelength-dependent particle scattering, recombination-line ratios, atomic physics, and statistical mechanics.

Lessons from Outreach: What works; what doesn’t
Philip M. Sadler, Harvard-Smithsonian, CfA.
3:10 PM - 3:20 PM

Outreach to teachers in the form of professional development can help to inform college instructors as to the effectiveness of methods aimed at increasing subject matter and pedagogical content knowledge. College faculty employ a wide range of activities in summer institute programs, often in all-day, residential programs. Comparing such immersion experiences can tell us quite a bit about learning using a variety of systematic approaches to teaching physics and astronomy under ideal conditions.

Excitement, Instruction, Engagement, and Learning
Chris David Impey, Univ. of Arizona.
3:20 PM - 3:30 PM

The universe is the largest and most impressive possible arena for the exploration of physical principles. Educational research shows that the act of learning requires active engagement rather than passive transmission of information. Modern astronomy provides several unique advantages for the teaching of physics. It shows a small set of physical laws operating over a wide range of scales in very different cosmic contexts. It is driven by very rapid research advances and iconic telescopes and space missions. It is connected to a pervasive desire to understand our place in the universe. Although study of the universe is not like lab science, it illustrates the strengths and limitations of the scientific method. This talk will cover the best pedagogical practice for teaching astronomy and physics, and give examples of topics that provide the potential for a rich learning experience.