A Hand-Me-Down Astronomy Lab Wins Plaudits From Senate

An astronomy laboratory put together with donated computer equipment that is so popular students are "seduced into being committed science majors" is being honored with the campus's Educational Initiatives Award for 1995.

The Undergraduate Instrumentation and Image Processing Laboratory in the Department of Astronomy was hailed by the Academic Senate Committee on Teaching for providing "fresh ideas about the use of students' time."

In selecting the laboratory, the committee said, "the students' enthusiasm for the program shines through."

The award was created in 1993 to recognize a department or a unit that has created an outstanding program or initiative that could serve as a model.

David Cuda-back, now lecturer emeritus of astronomy, and Jerry Hudson, a programmer in the Radio Astronomy Laboratory, began the lab in 1987-88 by converting an image processing program used at Lick Observatory to a form for student use.

The basic instructional technique in the laboratory and its associated lab courses, Astronomy 80 and 180, is to set an experimental goal such as measuring the distance to a cluster of stars. Students are then provided "with the equipment and computational analysis tools to carry out the task," says Jonathan Arons, chair of the Department of Astronomy.

In practice, says Professor Carl Heiles, each semester students get a pile of components and test equipment, information and goals. "The rest is up to them," he says.

The hands-on approach has met with notable success.

"Significant numbers of students who do not intend to become professionals have been seduced into being committed science majors, while many top-level students have decided to enter graduate school in astronomy programs," adds Arons.

Each semester students perform four experiments to become familiar with the basic electronic components. They assemble the observatories themselves, experimentally determine the characteristics of the systems, and use them to make astronomical observations.

Currently, the lab course involves setting up two radio observatories on the roof of Campbell Hall.

"In recent years," says Arons, "we have come to see much of our undergraduate teaching as not only preparing future astronomers, but also as a means of educating potential science teachers, technically oriented personnel in business, science writers and scientifically well educated citizens."


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
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