Perspectives on Teaching:
Warner and Knol's new "Obs-sessions"

Initiated by Provost Lloyd Armstrong's three year project, USC is undergoing a change in their general education requirements. Under the new requirements, the amount of general education units has been lowered and the curriculum has been redesigned to suit a multidisciplinary and practical agenda. These newly designed courses are scheduled to begin officially in the Fall of 1997, yet the USC Department of Physics and Astronomy has already successfully test run its redesigned Astronomy 100 class.

Over the past several years Astronomy 100 has been a very popular general education course with enrollments approaching five hundred students each semester, accounting for nearly one-third of the students enrolled in the department. It was decided that this would be a good course to get an early start refurbishing to satisfy the new requirements. Professor Nicholas Warner and Robert Knol, Manager of Physics and Astronomy General Education Lab, set up a pilot program in the Fall '96 semester. Concentrating on one class section of about one hundred fifty students, Dr. Nick Warner worked to give Astronomy 100 a fresh approach emphasizing practical experience, while Robert developed and implemented the totally new "Laboratory Experience and Field Trip Component" required by the G. E. redesign.

Robert Knol holding a Celestron Telescope.
This laboratory experience component is a major new requirement for all science G.E. courses. Dr. Warner is very enthusiastic about this requirement. While serving on the General Education Task Force, he actually penned the words, "practical or field experience is mandatory" for the new USC general education statement of purpose. However when asked about implementation in the department, Dr. Warner readily admits, "Robert is certainly the driving force behind this getting off the ground."

The purpose of the practical experiences is to draw upon the principles brought out in lecture. Robert explains, "For instance when the Astronomy lecture deals with the rather dry subject matter of the moon and planets, and later on, stars and galaxies, we now take the students out for observation sessions and actually have them observe these phenomena through a decent telescope. This way we make a connection between lecture material and `real life' or `the real thing.'"

Dr. Warner feels that not only does this experience illuminate the lecture but it connects the students with the "aesthetic experience" of astronomy. Warner goes on to explain that enabling the student to "gain confidence in dealing with scientific equipment" and the "aesthetic experience of messing around with a halfway decent telescope" puts the student in touch with what Warner describes as an "active hobby," an experience that most students might not have had until this point. Many children today are more enthusiastic about playing video games or watching T.V. In other words, they are busy engaging in "passive hobbies." Dr. Warner laments that "it has become rare for kids to build things, or take things apart to find out how they work, or simply blow things up." It is Warner's assertion that these activities are essential to the development of an academic mind.

For the Fall '96 pilot test, Warner's Astronomy 100 students engaged in four of these practical experiences. First the class built a working sun dial which requires a good understanding of the Earth-Sun interaction and mechanics. The remaining three practical experiences were observation sessions, dubbed "Obssessions."

The first of these "obs-sessions" was a lunar eclipse observation giving students a chance to get acquainted with the telescopes. During this viewing they learned how to take measurements which they later used to calculate the size of the moon.

"We hope from a general point of view that students will get some sense of what science means; what it is that you do with science, how it applies to your environment."

During the second observation, students were taught how to set up the telescopes for themselves. The stars and the rings of Saturn were observed and their positions were plotted. Students were able to locate celestial objects on their own, based on coordinates that were provided to them. One of the highlights of this observation was viewing the moons of Jupiter. Robert elaborates, "Over the course of an evening, the students can actually observe the movement of two of the moons of Jupiter."

The last "obs-session" was a dark sky observation at Pyramid Lake just north on the I5 freeway. A little over half of the students attending the viewing had never seen a dark sky making this a totally new experience.

Robert illustrates, "They were looking at the Milky Way and one of the students actually said after half an hour, `When is that cloud going to go away?'"

I said, `What cloud?'"

He said, `That white stuff up there.'"

I said, `Now that's the Milky Way. That's what you're here for.'"

For a lot of them that was a revelation, to actually see that those are stars."

Students were very enthusiastic about working with the telescopes and some were even able to locate Uranus which is quite difficult. They also observed the Andromeda Galaxy and planetary nebulae. According to Knol,"These are things that people only see on T.V., science-fiction movies, or in picture books."

It is the introduction of these practical experiences that constitute the greatest change in the Astronomy 100 curriculum, and that means that the burden falls on Robert. Robert Knol is in charge of lab instruction for all new general education lab sections that will be created as a result of this new G.E. program.

Physics 100 will go through the same renovating process also to be rolled out in the Fall of '97. Robert has already begun the process of writing new labs for this course. He would like to create a lab section that really brings home the practical aspects of basic physics. He explains, "I hope that in that fashion the theoretical considerations that come out in the Physics lecture in the first few weeks make a whole lot more sense and are more approachable to them."

Robert, an experimental Physicist, also holds a bachelor's degree in Astronomy. When this job came along, he saw it as a great opportunity to instill a better appreciation and understanding for Astronomy as a science and a hobby. He is gratified to be a part of putting together such a good program that effectively addresses the challenge of providing a practical component for a group of five hundred students including field trips.

Dr. Warner also finds the effort rewarding, and being as enthusiastic about teaching as he is about his research, he is committed to the challenge of introducing science to the uninitiated. Teaching challenges him to find the "hook to engage [the students'] minds." That is to say that he must take these difficult concepts and present them in such a way that is easily understood by someone who is "intelligent, but not mathematically oriented."

Being a professor who believes his classroom should be an open forum for the exchange of ideas, Nick Warner enjoys a lot of vocal class interaction asserting this to be the key for a true understanding of a subject. Very pleased, he says, "In this last class, I think it was the most vocally interactive and most rewarding class I ever taught." It is Warner's belief that teaching and interaction with the students keeps ideas alive.

What do Robert Knol and Professor Warner hope to achieve from the experience of rejuvenating Astronomy 100?

Robert: "We hope from a general point of view that students will get some sense of what science means; what it is that you do with science, how it applies to your environment." He would like to introduce the students to scientific thinking and the scientific method by presenting new ways of thinking that these students may have never experienced. Practical experiences in the labs are key to this process of intellectual transformation.

For Dr. Warner, this course is "the last chance by which we are going to engage the students in basic science and help them understand what basic science is."

"At the same time as one will teach [students] science . . ., you also engage them in what a basic science is and why you do that. And to some extent, a small amount of it is the aesthetic experience. And therefore, I believe the observational part absolutely enhances the aesthetic experience."

Continuing, he says, "Astronomy is the archetype for basic science. It is quite literally useless. You can't make any money from astronomy. You can make it from astrology, but you can't make it from astronomy. It is one of the foundations of our culture. It is the yardstick by which we measure ancient cultures. It is a fundamentally important part of our culture. Occasionally it has very indirect practical applications, but rarely."

People say, `So why do you do it?'"

And I usually respond with something like, `Why do we engage in any cultural activity?'"

That usually creates in the petitioner lots and lots and lots of silence."

So at the same time as one will teach them science . . ., you also engage them in what a basic science is and why you do that. And to some extent, a small amount of it is the aesthetic experience. And therefore, I believe the observational part absolutely enhances the aesthetic experience."

The Fall semester's Astronomy 100 students were eager to participate in this pilot program. Robert points out that approximately 85% of the students were "very satisfied with the introduction of these practical experiences as part of the lecture" according to a survey that was designed specifically for this pilot class.

Professor Warner concurs that many of the students found the practical experiences to be rewarding and a definite enhancement, saying, "It made them less afraid of science." Some students even told Dr. Warner that if they had taken this class earlier they would have changed their major, emphasizing to him the significant impact of practical experience.

Laying the groundwork for the Fall 1997 semester, Robert Knol and Professor Warner's hard work will be implemented in three class sections of the new, improved Astronomy 100 allowing USC students the invaluable opportunity to acquire a new outlook on science through the lens of a telescope.