What You Will Learn in this Course
We will start by considering the motions of the Earth as it rotates on its axis and revolves around our star, the Sun. What may seem quite simple will turn out to have several surprising subtleties and effects. We then move on to consider the Moon's motion around the Earth, with even more surprises in store. The Moon itself will be the first other "world" we explore, followed by the planets in our Solar System (all 7 of them, skipping Earth). Each planet is a very different place, and when we discuss the outer planets the many moons of these planets form unique worlds unto themselves. We will then complete our survey of the Solar System by considering the rest of the "stuff" surrounding our star - asteroids, "dwarf planets" and the comets. And then we'll deal with the Sun itself.
We will then take a few nights to discuss some of the basics of physics that we will need to better comprehend the larger Universe surrounding us. The relation between distance and time, how we measure the distance to stars, how we can tell the age of a star. We will have a special night in which we discuss only the nature of light - this will be a class filled with demonstrations and experiments.
With these basic concepts introduced, we then will proceed to study the stars - their types, how they are formed, how they age, and how they die. In the final classes, we will learn about the truly bizarre objects that astronomers have discovered in the Universe - quasars, pulsars, black holes, and many more exotic objects.
You will learn to identify the brighter constellations (at least 10) which are visible during the season in which you take the course. We will observe the Moon in detail, looking at craters, mountain ranges, vast seas of frozen lava, and narrow valleys. Depending on the season, we will observe the visible planets - Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus and/or Neptune, along with their larger moons. You will see several double stars, vast open clusters of dozens or hundreds of stars, globular clusters of 10,000 or more stars, and galaxies of billions of stars. We will also see huge clouds of gas from which stars are forming, or in which a star has died. Along the way, we are sure to observe many man-made satellites, possibly including the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. And we will almost certainly see meteors (shooting stars). If we are lucky, a comet may be visible during the class time hours as well.
A Typical Class Night
Class starts at 7pm. Upon arrival, we usually chat a bit about interesting things that I've recently learned about astronomy, or news from various NASA missions or new discoveries, while waiting for the whole class to arrive. By 7:15 we start the lecture for the night. There is a definite topic to be covered in each class, as shown in the syllabus to the right, and there is a set of PowerPoint slides shown that cover that topic. However, as a very dynamic lecturer, I only use the slides as a reference, and most of the information in the course is conveyed through my verbal descriptions, including various props and demonstrations. I allow questions to be asked at anytime during the talks, though if the same child is asking several questions in a row, I may ask them to wait to ask later in the class.
Quite often, the lecture will stray off from the main topic as I am rather prone to recounting interesting side stories, or even relevant other areas of astronomy or physics - most of these ramblings are unplanned, and may be prompted by questions asked, or just pop into my head while I'm discussing the main topic. I've found these side topics keep the class interesting for all of us. I do, however, always complete the night's topic within 90 minutes or so.
In addition to the main lectures covering the descriptions of the objects in Astronomy, we will also learn about how to observe objects in the night sky. For this I rely upon a small set of very short presentations (no more than 15-20 minutes), given when the weather is not cooperating. We'll cover how to see at night, how to look through a telescope, how to use binoculars, and how to navigate through the night sky to find interesting objects to observe. We'll also learn to identify several constellations, and then this will be reinforced when we observe them outside.
Assuming the weather remains typical, we will observe after about 1/2 of the classes. To fill in for those rainy or cloudy nights, in addition to the "observation lectures" mentioned above, we also have prepared a few indoor activities that will help us learn several skills for observing, and we may also have the opportunity to construct some simple observing aids.
Mercury and Venus
Mars and Jupiter
Saturn and Uranus
Neptune and Beyond
Distance and Time
The Nature of Light
Types of Stars
Measuring the Stars
How Stars are Made
How Average Stars Age and Die
How Large Stars Age and Die
The Strangest Objects in the Universe