The Entire Universe in 14 Weeks

Ideas more or less related to teaching and learning physics at Luther College.

If I am adding things up correctly, I am about to begin my 19th year here at Luther College. My journey to working at a small liberal arts college includes what could best be described as a conversion experience. I hadn’t thought about teaching at all when I went to graduate school but like so many other students I got a teaching assistantship to pay the bills that first year, well to pay some of the bills anyway. Without any sort of training or even a clarification of expectations, I found myself teaching laboratory and discussion sections for a large algebra-based introductory physics course. My very first day of interacting with students in the classroom a light went on and from that point on I was compelled to seek a life that included working closely with students. I have been fortunate to make that a reality for these past 18 years at a place where students come first.

I won’t be teaching our astronomy course this fall. I don’t teach it every fall semester but have done so most falls. It is a single course that covers all of astronomy. We begin with what we can learn from simple but careful observations of night sky, move to a little philosophy of science, then on to planets, stars, galaxies and cosmology. It is a lot for 14 weeks. I need to remind students often that we are not trying to become experts in any of the topics but instead are more interested in the threads that connect the topics and the patterns that begin to emerge when we examine those threads, such as we are able to do in 14 weeks. I hope at least we get to the recognition that there is beauty and complexity in the patterns and that our very human weaving of a tapestry of understanding is breathtaking. Of course, I also tell students about an article I read years ago about a racing school in Southern California. In that article Mario Andretti said something to the effect of, “If you don’t feel like you are about to crash every moment, you aren’t going fast enough.”

Over the years I have realized that my ability to teach this course that tackles the entire universe in one semester is an additional advantage of being at this small liberal arts college. So many places have a “Planets” course and a separate “Stars” course and many people, understandably, prefer it that way. But it is the single course in astronomy for the general audience that resonates with me.  In this single course one must de-emphasize the details of a particular system in favor the bigger picture. That’s not to say we don’t dwell a little more on particular stories that I think help us form a better picture of what we mean when we talk about astronomy or science. Our move to a heliocentric model of the solar system, with emphasis on the work of Brahe and Kepler , is one such story. Our understanding of the Milky Way as one galaxy among many is another. I have been fortunate to teach these in a single course where we see these stories, and others, as helping us recognize how humanity has endeavored to understand the universe and the tentative nature of that understanding. I will missing being a part of that narrative unfolding with students this fall.

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