So, what is the best way to learn Astronomy? Go to an expensive university? Go to an in-expensive university? Or, Wing it? Most of us can tend to just wing it, but it doesn’t have to be that. We’ve all been around the block a time or two regarding schooling. We know that it’s a mix of classroom and field work that works best (Some call it Blended Style Learning). So what can we do, we don’t want to wing it, but we want a good firm foundation to enjoy our hobby.
Here’s an approach I propose- take a look at a few syllabuses that are online from whatever university you desire or think is a good one. Here is a good link for a starting place American Astronomical Society. They list most of the schools that offer undergrad and graduate courses throughout the country. Find a few you like and respect and click on the college link. Then pull up the courses needed to get an Astronomy degree from that university. They have already done the pedagogical review and studies to determine what is needed and the order in which it is needed in. List those courses down and what they teach you. Then do the same for 2 to 3 other universities and you will start to see a trend:
1. Astronomy courses
2. Math courses
3. Physics courses
These are the three cornerstones for a degree in Astronomy. The astronomy courses are a given and varied. Math courses are the Calculus series (don’t be intimidated- anyone can teach themselves calculus, there are some great online FREE courses regarding this that I will discuss in a bit). Vector calculus, Differential equations, Linear Algebra should round you out nicely. Lastly, Physics courses- this seems to be the most varied, but basically Mechanics, Quantum, Relativity, Electrical, Magnetism, Thermodynamics, Optics you will see the most. Way cool! Hopefully I haven’t scared you or lost you yet. Hang in there.
You might be thinking, forget it, but don’t, the quality of the FREE online MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) and others like MIT Open Courseware are fantastic tools, bringing the experts right to your cell phone or computer with the latest and greatest discoveries, not something that’s been sitting in a book for the last 10 years. Oh, that is one thing about Astronomy- it’s extremely fast moving and will need an up to date platform- so check that and stay within the last 3-5 years at most.
MIT Open Course Ware, OHIO State University Calculus are two great starting points! Dr. Tom Fowler at Ohio does a great job and is very motivating. MIT’s courses in calculus are well done. You can take them and do them at your leisure. There are lot’s of people around on the net to help you understand things when you get in a jam. Then use your university you looked up and find those courses out there on the internet, usually for free. Now this is one aspect, like the pictures above show. Classroom type stuff. Adults learn best when they work with their hands. We need to do stuff to learn it. So a large part of your program should be observational. This is where Clubs come into play. Join one. Here is a good starting point- Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Yeah, yeah I get it you live in NJ so why join a West Coast club? Resources, people, ideas etc… this group plus your local group (mine- South Jersey Astronomy Club costs $20/year) you will find folks who are experts in many areas of the observational field as well as the research field. The clubs usually have equipment to start you out on, and give you guided observational experience as well. Now the experience is starting to rub off on you. You will eventually do a talk at the club on a topic, or teach a young kid something at a star party or club gathering. Its when we teach something that we really learn it. So when you learn something in Astronomy, TEACH it- to a child, co-worker, friend whoever will listen, TEACH.
Now the next phase. We have discussed Classroom, Lab (observing) and now what about conferences, such as NEAF. This year they had top notch scientist from LIGO, NASA and all give talks, man booths for questions etc… Great place to learn, ask questions and improve your knowledge level. Along with conferences, tour a working observatory, watch a rocket launch, visit a NASA facility, etc… basically get out there and network. Folks love talking about what they know and are very easily convinced to share their knowledge.
Finally you can do some research yourself. Huh? Yep- how about build your own scope? Springfield Amateur Astronomers can help you at Stellafane. You can really put that classroom optics knowledge to work! Join Amateur Association of Variable Star Observers AASVO, International Occultation and Timing Association IOTA and contribute to real science now with your equipment.
So what do you think? You can build a world class education with a few of the above ideas.
1. Classroom learning based on your research of university degree programs.
2. Observing practice- at least monthly, starting out with a club/friend would be best.
3. Conferences- at least one a year. Good for networking, latest discoveries etc…
4. Tour a working observatory near you (or far away if a vacation is in order) talk with professionals in the field. With your classroom knowledge you will be more able to understand and contribute during the discussions.
5. Teach at a local star party at least once a year. Or develop a web course for your club
6. Join a working group type organization and contribute (AASVO, IOTA, etc…)
Will you have a Harvard, MIT type diploma on the wall? Do you need one? To me the knowledge is the most precious thing, not the diploma. Knowledge and experience says it all, and considering most of the information is free on the internet and local clubs, and facilitates, give it a go. Maybe clubs will start a Certificate program etc… to help recognize those that do gain the knowledge- hmmmm.
My point is this, you can do it. The resources are there and within the capability of most of us it is just do you want to pursue the discipline necessary to learn the World’s Oldest Science?
I would greatly appreciate any feedback regarding this piece.
Well that’s all for now,