Elementary Astronomy (Astronomy/Physics 1040)

Instructor: Daniel Schroeder, Physics Department, Weber State University

Office: Science Lab (immediately south of Lind Lecture Hall), room 208

Office phone: 801-626-6048

Email: dschroeder@weber.edu

Office hours: MWF 10:30-11:30 and TTh 1:30-2:30. I apologize that I cannot be available for any but the quickest questions immediately before our class. However, I can be available by appointment in the early morning or late afternoon on most days. My full schedule is posted next to my office door.

Course web page: http://physics.weber.edu/schroeder/astro/

Prerequisites: This course has no college-level prerequisites. However, if you have been placed into developmental English or math courses, it means that you are not yet prepared to get the most out of this course (or most other courses). In that case you may want to consider postponing this course until your developmental work is complete.

Textbooks: There is no required textbook for this course, but I do recommend that you purchase or borrow a textbook of your choice. Many used textbooks are perfectly acceptable and can save you a lot of money. Whether or not you purchase a book, you will also need to use a variety of online resources as described below.

Required materials: Everyone will need a ruler, protractor, and drawing compass. Even the most inexpensive versions, marketed to school children, are just fine. You will also need a pocket calculator. I recommend a scientific calculator (with an EE or EXP key for entering powers of 10), but if you know how to manipulate exponents using pencil and paper, you can get by with a simpler calculator. For some of the observational projects you will need additional equipment, as described in the instructions.

Other requirements: For this course you will need frequent access to an internet-connected computer. Much of the course reading material will be on our course web site and other web sites. You should also check your WSU email account frequently in case there are last-minute announcements.

Course Overview

This course is an introduction to astronomy, the study of the universe beyond earth. There's a lot out there, so we won't have time to learn every detail. But we will choose topics from the following:

Course Format

Science is all about observing the universe, asking questions, and thinking critically about the answers. This class will therefore emphasize observation, questioning, and critical thinking. You must be prepared to participate in this class. Much of our class time will be spent on discussion and hands-on activities. Outside of class you will prepare notes on your reading, finish the weekly exercises, take three tests, and complete two major observational projects.

Grades will be based on a point system in which you can earn points from each of the following:

Your total number of earned points will determine your final grade as follows: Notice that theoretically, the maximum number of points is 122, while you need only 95 points to earn the highest possible grade. This means you can miss some assignments without penalty, as long as you do sufficiently well on everything else. (This policy should give you enough flexibility to allow for most illnesses, family emergencies, unexpected romances, and the like.) However, it will be difficult to earn the maximum number of points on homework, tests, and projects. Don't start skipping assignments early in the semester, assuming that you can make up the points later!

Daily reading assignments

For most of our class sessions I will provide you with written guidelines that ask you to read (before class!) about a certain topic in astronomy. The guidelines will also suggest some starting points for where you might find information on that topic. I'll frequently recommend:

But your assignment will not be simply to read a set of predetermined pages. Rather, you are to read whatever you have to, to understand the topic at hand. This means that some of you will have to read more than others, and that it is your responsibility to decide exactly what you need to read. Some sources (like Wikipedia) will be full of more advanced material that you'll need to skim. Other sources may be too elementary or incomplete, so you'll need to look further. And some sources are not reading per se, but images or web animations or even web programs. The most appropriate sources for another student may not be at the right level for you, so you'll need to choose which sources work best for you. You'll also have the flexibility to pursue the specific topics that interest you most.

Daily reading notes

To help focus your reading, and to show me what you've gotten out of it, you will prepare a page (or so) of notes on each reading assignment. Each day's reading notes should include each of the following:

  1. A summary of the main things you learned from your reading, written in complete sentences (not a mere list of keywords).
  2. A list of the sources of information that you found most helpful. These will ordinarily be web sites or pages from your textbook (or some other book). Please specify the source accurately enough to allow someone else to find it easily.
  3. One or more questions that you have after doing your reading. These could be about things that you didn't understand, or just further questions that your reading didn't answer. But in either case, they should be questions that genuinely interest you. Try to make your questions as specific as possible, not general ones like "Could you explain stars?". You must come to class each day prepared to ask at least one good, specific question. I may call on you!
Your reading notes must be typed, brought to class (for your reference during our discussion), and turned in as you leave. Notes submitted either early or late will not be accepted under any circumstances, and I will not accept notes from students who arrive too late to fully participate during class. Be sure to save a copy for yourself as well. I will grade your reading notes based on your apparent effort--not just on how knowledgable you appear to be. Each day's reading notes should be about a page long, double spaced. If you have more to say than that, single spacing is ok. Please do not turn in more than one page of notes each day.

Weekly exercises

On about a third of our class days (usually Fridays), instead of discussing new reading material, we will focus on an in-class activity or exercise. The exercises will emphasize the more quantitative aspects of astronomy, so you'll need to bring your ruler, protractor, compass, and calculator. The exercises will be due at 5:00 pm, so you may continue to work on them after class if necessary. I encourage you to discuss the exercises with your classmates and check your answers with them (or with me). The work you turn in, however, must be your own.

Late homework will not be accepted under any circumstances.


We will have three one-hour-long closed-book tests, given in the Science Testing Center (SL 228). The tests will include both short-answer and multiple-choice questions, based on material from the reading assignments and from class. Each test will cover approximately one-third of the course material; the third test will be similar to the others in this respect, rather than a comprehensive final exam. You may use your drawing tools (ruler, protractor, compass) on the tests, but you may not use a calculator.

You will have a time period of approximately four days to take each test, so you should be able to work around most illnesses and other emergencies. (Testing Center hours are MTWTh 7:30 am - 9:00 pm, Fri 7:30 am - 5:30 pm, and Sat 9:00 am - 5:30 pm. You must arrive at least one full hour before closing time.) If for some reason you cannot take a test during the scheduled time period, you must contact me in advance (or at the earliest possible opportunity) to make other arrangements. I will not give make-up tests to students who forget to take a test, or to students who contact me regarding an illness or emergency later than they could have. ("Contact" implies two-way communication and a full exchange of relevant information. You can start with a brief email or voicemail, but technology sometimes fails and it's your responsibility to keep trying to reach me until you succeed.)

Observational projects

A major portion of your grade will be based on two observational projects. This is your chance to actually look at the sky yourself, record your observations carefully, and describe what you did in the form of a short paper. A separate document gives full instructions and a list of possible projects from which you can choose. Due dates for the observational projects will be announced in class. Projects may be turned in early for full credit. Late projects will be marked down two points per day (counting every weekday except school holidays).

Special accommodations

The policies outlined above are designed to be as fair as possible to the vast majority of students. Please do not ask me to make exceptions for athletic events, other extracurricular activities, or short-term illnesses or emergencies. However, if a truly unusual circumstance makes it impossible for you to attend school for a long period of time (more than two weeks), please contact me immediately to discuss whether a special accommodation might be possible. (The most common reason for such an accommodation is military service.)

Any student requiring accommodations or services due to a disability must contact Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) in the Student Service Center. SSD can also arrange to provide course materials (including this syllabus) in alternative formats if necessary.

Unpleasant but necessary threat

Academic dishonesty of any sort will not be tolerated in this course. You are responsible for understanding what constitutes academic dishonesty, including cheating on tests, plagiarism, and fabrication of data. Penalties for academic dishonesty will range from a zero score on the assignment to failure in the course. In some cases, an incident may also be reported to the appropriate hearing committee for further sanctions.