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Web Sites for College Astronomy Instructors

by Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College & ASP)

Version 3.0; October 2004

© copyright 2004 by Andrew Fraknoi. All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form without written permission from the author is expressly forbidden. Contact the author at: fraknoiandrew {at}

Table of Contents

1. Guides for Instructors, TA’s, and Students
2. Collections of Course Syllabi and Descriptions
3. Suggestions for New Teaching Approaches
4. Demonstrations and Activities for the Classroom
5. Introductory Textbook Sites
6. Laboratory and Observing Exercises
7. Applets, Shareware, and Other Web-based Exercises
8. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Astronomy Teaching
9. Organizations that Offer Resources for Instructors
10. Miscellaneous Sites of Interest

This guide is designed to assist instructors who teach introductory astronomy classes for non-science majors. It is not a comprehensive list, but rather highlights a number of sites that experienced teachers around the country have found useful. Suggestions for sites of general interest to add are welcome. Note however, that we do not list subject-specific or instrument-specific sites here, but only those which come in handy for figuring out HOW to teach (rather than WHAT to teach.)

1. Guides for Instructors, TA’s, and Students

Astronomy Center:
This new web site will feature listings and reviews of sites and on-line materials for astronomy instructors, including applets, labs, image banks, curricula, etc. (A project of the American Astronomical Society.)

Astronomy Education Review:
An on-line journal/magazine on astronomy education, with research papers, articles on educational innovation, resource guides, opinion pieces, reviews, and news items. Good place to check for additions to this list.

Conceptual Astronomy & Physics Education Research Team (at the University of Arizona):
This is a leading group in astronomy education and their web pages have information about college teaching workshops, studies, and resources.

Field Tested Learning Assessment Guide:
How to evaluate your students besides multiple-choice tests (and how to do those multiple-choice questions better too.) From the Nat’l Inst of Sci Ed group at U. of Wisconsin.

Goals for Astronomy 101:
Workshops on the teaching of introductory astronomy were held in 2001 for astronomy department chairs and other leaders at selected major research universities to discuss the goals for “Astro 101” courses. The full report authored by Bruce Partridge and George Greenstein has been published in the Astronomy Education Review, volume 2, Issue 2, 2003.

Hints on How to Succeed in College Classes:
Jeff Bennett (U. of Colorado) gives study hints for beginning astronomy students.

JPL Center for Astronomy Education:
JPL, in cooperation with the University of Arizona CAPER Team, has begun a web site to serve as an on-line center for community college instructors and others who teach introductory astronomy, with teaching tips and discussion groups.

Review of Astronomy Education Research:
Janelle Bailey and Timothy Slater give a nice overview of what we can learn from research on the teaching of astronomy.

Tips for Astronomy TA’s:
From faculty and students at the U. of Washington astronomy department here are some hints for beginning TA’s that can help instructors as well.

Virginia Tech Study Skills Self-Help for Students:
A nice summary of things students should be thinking about to succeed in college courses.

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2. Collections of Course Syllabi and Descriptions

College-Level Astronomy Courses:
Reggie Hudson (Eckerd Coll.) has compiled web links to over 100 astronomy courses around the country whose instructors have posted a syllabus and other course information on the Web.

World Lecture Hall: Astronomy:
An older, shorter listing of web-based astronomy courses.

Learning History of Physics:
A short collection for history of science courses.

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3. Suggestions for New Teaching Approaches

Collaborative Learning Page:
The National Institute for Science Education at the U. of Wisconsin has a useful introduction to the techniques, resources, and practical tricks of small collaborative learning groups.

Peer Instruction:
Harvard’s Paul Green introduces the idea of students teaching each other, gives resources, and printable flash cards.

Role-Playing Exercises for Teaching Astronomy & Physics:
Paul Francis & Aidan Byrne of the Australian National U. suggest collaborative group activity where students play roles in a scientific team.

Weekly Challenge in Introductory Astronomy:
Doug Duncan discusses how to use a weekly challenge in large lecture classes to get out of lecture mode.

The Astronomy Diagnostic Test:
A multiple-choice exam that tests student astronomy knowledge and pre-conceptions before an introductory course. You can print out the test here and add your scores to the national database.

The Lunar Phases Concept Inventory:
Developed by Rebecca Lindell, this multiple-choice test allows you to assess how well your students understand lunar phases.

Note: New teaching approaches are often discussed in the articles in Astronomy Education Review (see section 1.)

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4. Demonstrations and Activities for the Classroom

Activities Clearinghouse from the University of Washington Astronomy Department:
Solar system walk, edible comets, Kirchoff’s Laws with tennis balls, and more.

In-class Activities at Michigan State University:
Beth Hufnagel & Bob Stein’s series of interesting collaborative group activities for large lecture classes. Some require images not yet on the site, but most can be seen and used in their entirety.

Physics Demonstrations on Line:
Keith Warren’s (N. Carolina State) collection of sites with demonstrations for physics classes, with some astronomy. See his 7500-entry bibliography of written demonstrations on the same site.

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5. Introductory Textbook Sites

Please note: Almost all textbooks now come in various versions, including shorter editions devoted either to the solar system or to the stars, or simplified editions covering most of astronomy. In the list below we give only the title of the main text; in general you can find the other versions at the same web site. While some parts of these sites are restricted to those who adopt the text, many are open to all users and contain useful teaching aids.

Arny: Explorations: An Introduction to Astronomy:

Bennett, Donahue, Schneider, Voit: The Cosmic Perspective:

Bennett, Shostak, Jakosky: Life in the Universe:

Chaisson, McMillan: Astronomy Today:

Comins, Kaufmann: Discovering the Universe:

Fix: Astronomy: Journey to the Cosmic Frontier:

Fraknoi, Morrison, Wolff: Voyages Through the Universe:

Freedman, Kaufmann: Universe:

Goldsmith, Owen: The Search for Life in the Universe:

Hartmann, Impey: Astronomy: The Cosmic Journey:

Hester, Burstein, Blumenthal, Greely, Smith, Voss, Wegner: 21st Century Astronomy:

Impey, Hartmann: Universe Revealed:

Kaler: Astronomy: A Brief Edition:

Kuhn, Koupelis: In Quest of the Universe:

Morrison, Owen: The Planetary System:

Pasachoff: Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe: (Also see for additional materials.)

Pasachoff, Filippenko: The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millenium: (Also see for additional materials.)

Seeds: Foundations of Astronomy:

Shawl, Ashman, and Hufnagel: Discovering Astronomy 5th edition

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6. Laboratory and Observing Exercises

Active Astronomy:
Tim Slater’s interesting curriculum of 21 hands-on activities, many of which take interesting approaches. Note, however, that some are missing crucial elements, like charts or images, in the web version.

Astronomy On-Line: The Experiments Shop:
In 1996, ESO astronomers organized a series of astronomy and observing exercises at many levels. They vary widely in approach and style; but you can browse and find some gems.

Binary Stars:
Suite of computer-based activities on binary star astronomy, by Claud Lacy of the U. of Arkansas.

CLEA Software Overview:
Larry Marschall’s Contemporary Lab Experiences in Astronomy project has produced some terrific and sophisticated computer-based lab exercises, which can be explored and downloaded.

Determining the Extragalactic Distance Scale:
Diane Dutkevich of Northwestern has put a sophisticated series of activities on the web that begin with a Cepheid hunt in M100 and finish with estimating the Hubble time.

Introductory Astronomy Galactic Laboratory:
Esther Zirbel at Tufts University has provided 17 lab exercises with pdf files and notes for the instructor. Includes topics from angles to the Hubble Deep Field.

Lab Archive of the University of Washington Astronomy Dept.:
A collection of labs and exercises by U. of Washington faculty and grad students, including Bruce Balick’s clever “Suntanning” lab and a number of good exercises on the distance scale.

Villanova University Astronomy Experiments:
This is a series of lab experiments using Distant Suns and Dance of the Planets software, developed by Frank Maloney & David Steelman, retrievable in WordPerfect 5.1 format.

Subject Index of Astronomy Activities (K-12) on the Web:
A listing of some web-based K-12 astronomy activities, many of which can be adapted to college labs or assignments. Organized by topic, with capsule reviews and recommended grade levels for each.

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7. Applets, Shareware, and Other Web-based Exercises

Astronomy Freeware and Software:
High school teacher Bill Drennon reviews and shows where to download astronomy programs, such as an H-R Diagram Calculator; has links to other astronomy shareware.

Astronomy Workshop:
Includes “calculation exercises” (e.g. calculating results of an impact by a comet or asteroids and getting a feel for cosmic distances), viewers, orbit exercises and more, by Douglas Hamilton & Mike Asbury at the U. of Maryland.

Blackbody Radiation:
Karen Strom (U. of Massachusetts) has written a guide to the characteristics of blackbody radiation, which includes several interactive VRML and Java exercises.

Electronic Universe:
Greg Bothun and his colleagues at the U. of Oregon offer a range of java aplets, hypertext guides, and other innovative materials, but they are often left unfinished as new projects or ideas claim the developers’ attention.

Interactive Excel Spreadsheets for Physics and Astronomy:
Excel exercises and demonstrations from a collection kept at Northwestern University: blackbody curves, Kepler’s Laws, Bohr Model, period of Io, etc.

Java Applets for Courses at Amherst:
George Greenstein and Amy Lovell have a number of nice aplets for their special topics classes.

Java Applets for Teaching Astrophysics: Somewhat more advanced applets and simulations, particularly involving orbits and spectral lines, by Joachim Koppen.

Sky Image Processor:
Web-based astronomical image processing program by John Simonetti of Virginia Tech.

Nebraska Astronomy Education Pages:
Kevin Lee and his colleagues at the U. of Nebraska are developing a number of modules with simulations or explorations of astrophysical phenomena – applets and collaborative, interactive classroom materials.

A series of applets from Wolfgang Christian & others at Davidson on basic physics topics, including a number that are relevant to astronomy. Now available as a book and CD as well.

Project LITE:
The Light Inquiry through Experiment project from Ken Brecher and co-workers at Boston University includes a range of applets to encourage study and experimentation with light, electromagnetic waves in general, and spectra.

Real-Time Science Data Access Page:
A set of useful links by Tim Slater (Montana State) to current astronomical data on the web, displayed in visual terms that students can use. Includes solar activity, weather on the planets, etc.

University of Colorado Applets:
Dick McCray and others have assembled some simulations and visualizations of the Drake equation, extra-solar planet finding, radiative transfer, etc.

Web Simulations in Astronomy:
Four stellar aplets by Terry Herter of Cornell, including evolution on the H-R diagram.

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8. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Astronomy Teaching

Astrobiology College Courses:
David Morrison moderates this resource guide and discussion group for those teaching courses with life in the universe as a theme.

Astronomical Pseudo-science: A Skeptic’s Resource List:
An annotated list of written and web resources for dealing with astrology, UFO’s, the Face on Mars, ancient astronauts, and many similar fringe topics.

Bill Hartmann’s Paintings and Astronomy Projects at Planetary Science Institute:
A gallery of astronomer/artist Hartmann’s superb (and accurate) paintings, with some examples of how they can be used to illuminate and explain current research in planetary science.

Poetry and Astronomy:
A short guide to collections of astronomical poetry.

Science Fiction Stories with Good Astronomy and Physics:
A listing of novels and stories organized by topic in astronomy, with a brief descriptions of each.

Music and Astronomy
On the uses of astronomically inspired music in education, with many examples.

The Astronomy of Many Cultures
A resource guide for teaching about the astronomy of diverse civilizations.

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9. Organizations that Offer Resources for Instructors

American Association of Physics Teachers:
Professional society for those who teach physics in college and high school. Has a catalog of slides and films strips (with only a few about astronomy); publishes journals and sponsors conferences; has an active committee on astronomy education, which organizes astronomy sessions at their meetings.

American Astronomical Society:
The professional organization for astronomers in the U.S. Has an education office, an education advisory committee, a useful web site, and programs in education at their meetings (including “Astronomy 101: A Continuing Dialogue). See their web site for the current list of activities and coordinators.

Astronomical Society of the Pacific:
Despite its name, the A.S.P. is a national and international organization, and has a special dedication to education at all levels. It has a web-based catalog of slide sets, books, and other materials for teaching astronomy. It also sponsors a series of “Cosmos in the Classroom” conferences on teaching introductory astronomy; and has a variety of other educational programs. Its web site offers a wide range of useful resource materials on astronomy education.

Astronomy Education Review:
This is an on-line journal and magazine for papers and articles relating to astronomy education. Its back issues (see the other appendices) are starting to be a fine library of serious information about teaching astronomy.

Astronomy Magazine:
Astronomy is the largest circulation popular astronomy magazine; it also has a line of astronomy books for amateurs and student observers; and sells posters and observing aids by mail.

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP):
An organization of scientists, educators, magicians, and other skeptics that seeks to inform the public about the rational perspective on such pseudo-sciences as astrology, UFO’s, crop circles, ancient astronauts, etc. Publishes The Skeptical Inquirer magazine, full of great debunking articles, and holds meetings and workshops around the country. A related publishing house, Prometheus Books, issues outstanding skeptical books.

CLEA (Contemporary Laboratory Experiences in Astronomy):
A project developing excellent computer-based college-level astronomy lab exercises for both Mac and Windows platforms.

Commercial company that produces and distributes videotapes and slide sets on space related subjects; some in cooperation with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Space Telescope Science Institute. Their caption materials are usually too brief to be especially helpful to beginners, but their prices are quite reasonable.

International Dark Sky Association:
Small non-profit organization devoted to fighting light pollution and educating politicians, lighting engineers, and the public about the importance of not spilling light where it will interfere with astronomical observations. They have excellent information sheets for teachers, students, and activists.

International Planetarium Society:
If your college has a planetarium, you may be interested in this organization of planetarium educators, which has many subgroups and meetings in different parts of the world. Their journal, The Planetarian, has its own website, full of useful educational articles:

Learning Technologies:
This small company, started by Harvard’s Phil Sadler, distributes the StarLab portable planetarium, a terrific solar viewer, and some inexpensive hands-on astronomy education kits.

Lunar and Planetary Institute:
This research institute produces sets of very nice slide sets on solar system phenomena with good caption booklets, as well as technical conference proceedings for their planetary conferences.

NASA Office of Space Science Education Office:
This branch of NASA has a large and complex initiative requiring an educational component to many missions and programs. While most of the educational programs are aimed at K-12, a good number of their materials and activities can fruitfully be adapted to introductory college teaching. The web site above is a good entry point into the many sites and projects. See also: (which is a rudimentary database that is aiming to evaluate and organize the many materials OSS projects are creating).

National Science Teachers’ Association:
While this organization is mostly for teachers in grades K-12, it does have a subgroup and a journal for college teaching. Their catalog has a number of elementary astronomy education materials that can sometimes be adapted for college level.

The Planetary Society:
Large national membership organization founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and others; lobbies for more planetary exploration and SETI; publishes a colorful magazine and has a modest catalog of reasonably priced slides, videos, & gift items.

Sky Publishing:
This company publishes Sky & Telescope, the premier magazine for serious amateur astronomers, and has an excellent catalog of atlases, sky observing software, and other observing aids, as well as some teaching aids. Their web site is one of the most useful on the Web, with excellent observing information, a database of amateur groups around the country, news items, links, and much more.

Small publisher dedicated to producing specialized books and software for astronomical observers.

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10. Miscellaneous Sites of Interest

This network of resource materials for physics and astronomy teaching is a joint project of several physics and astronomy organizations. An Astronomy 101 resource database is in the works.

Digital Diploma Mills:
An eloquent indictment of the rush to put courses on the web, and the commercial/political interests behind it, by an iconoclastic scholar.

Edu-Tools Comparison of Course Management Systems:
This site gives comparisons of features, costs, and efficacy of course management software, including commercial and free packages.

Electronic Voting Systems for Class Use: An Overview:
A nice introduction to personalized response or student voting systems by Steve Draper of Glasgow University.

How People Learn:
Although printing it out is not convenient, here is the text of a widely praised book called How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, published by the National Academies Press. It reviews the implications of the latest research on learning for how we can best teach science and math.

This is an open database of resources for teaching or enhancing college courses in many fields. The astronomy database had 141 entries as of October 2004. A much larger database for all sciences can be found at the National Science Digital Library:

Survey of College Astronomy Instructors:
The Astronomical Society of the Pacific is actively conducting a survey of instructors who teach astronomy at the non-research oriented institutions, including state colleges, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, adult and extension schools, etc. The form can be printed out. Results from the survey can be found at:

Teaching a University Course Site:
These web pages from the U. of Texas Center for Teaching Effectiveness include articles, guidelines, and web links for those just starting to teach or those who want to improve.

Teaching Physics: Figuring Out What Works:
An article from Physics Today summarizing what research into teaching and learning in physics has been showing our colleagues in that discipline.

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