Choosing a First Course in Astronomy

All of our introductory courses are open to any student who has passed the Basic Skills component of the QR requirement. Neither high school physics nor calculus is required.  Students who might pursue a major or minor should elect a laboratory. Astronomy labs are held at night.


Survey courses

We offer two flavors of survey course, 100 and 101.  With either, you may elect to co-enroll in 102 for laboratory credit.

ASTR 100 Life in the Universe

This course investigates the origin of life on Earth and the prospects for finding life elsewhere in the cosmos, and begins with an overview of Earth's place in the solar system and the universe. The course examines the early history of Earth and the development of life, changes in the Sun that affect Earth, characteristics of the other objects in our solar system and their potential for supporting life, the detection of planets around stars other than the Sun, and the search for extraterrestrial life. Satisfies NPS requirement.

Astronomy 108 Darkroom

ASTR 101 Introduction to Stars, Galaxies and Cosmology

This course examines the life stories of stars, from birth in clouds of gas and dust, through placid middle age, to violent explosive demise, leaving white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes. It also explores the makeup and structure of galaxies, which contain billions of stars and are racing away from each other as part of the overall expansion of the universe. Finally, it presents modern cosmological models for the origin and ultimate fate of the universe. The course emphasizes the interaction of observations and the mathematical models developed from these data. Satisfies MM or NPS requirements.

Astronomy 101 LabASTR 102 Introductory Astronomy Laboratory

The Astronomy Laboratory must be taken in conjunction with ASTR 100 or 101.  Lab sections meet weekly, at night, at the Whitin Observatory.  Students will learn constellations and sky motions through a combination of naked-eye observing and hands-on exercises.  They will learn to operate our telescopes and will use them to carry out  observations using both historical and modern techniques.  Satisfies the laboratory requirement.


Interdisciplinary studio-style course

We also offer a course that is co-taught by faculty in Astronomy and Geosciences.  It is being offered in the Fall of 2016 and is a good choice for first and second year students looking for an alternative to a traditional lecture-based course.  It meets in two long blocks per week.  

ASTR 120 Planetary Habitability: Past, Present, Future with Laboratory (Fall 2016)

Overall, Earth is a pretty fine place to live. But how did it get this way, and will it always be so nice? We will explore Earth’s place in the Universe in both space and time, focusing on processes that led to the Earth as we know it. We then will examine cosmic, geologic, and human processes that are altering our planet at a time when humans have become change agents on a global scale. This interdisciplinary, studio-style course features two long blocks per week with hands-on activities including group work, discussions, and projects with non-traditional assessment tailored to individual student goals. There will be opportunities for nighttime telescopic observing along with field trips to rock outcrops that preserve evidence of a very different early Earth climate.  Satisfies the MM or NPS requirement and the laboratory requirement.

Alternative first courses in astronomy

ASTR 110/PHYS 100 Einstein and the Dark Universe (FYS, Spring 2017)

This First Year Seminar explores Einstein's theory of relativity and two fundamental puzzles in physics: dark matter and dark energy. Taught in a hands-on/workshop format, students will carry out an experimental test of relativity, as well as computational analyses which reveal that the Universe's expansion is accelerating and that 80% of the matter in the Universe is fundamentally different from all known particles in the Standard Model of particle physics. We will also discuss the ongoing experimental search for the elusive dark matter particle, as well as efforts to understand the nature of dark energy. No prior physics background is assumed. We will make use of high school algebra and geometry in our work. Not to be counted toward the minimum physics major or to fulfill the physics entrance requirement for medical school

ASTR 210 Cosmology: 13.7 billion years and counting (Spring 2017)

The 21st century Universe is weirder than 20th century astronomers could imagine--its matter is mostly dark, its evolution is dominated by the effects of dark energy, and it is expanding at an accelerating rate. In this class, we will explore what we think we know about the makeup, history, and fate of our Universe. We will develop some of the basic laws of physics necessary to understand theoretical cosmology and apply them to the interpretation of modern cosmological observations. This can be a first course in astronomy, provided you have satisfied the prerequisite: MATH 116 (Calculus II) of equivalent.


Other First Year Seminars -- offered occasionally.

ASTR 103 The Story of Mars

Possible future offering.  Students will learn about Mars through the history of the science that mapped its surface and revealed its remote watery past.  We'll consider the early debate about a doomed Martian civilization, and the state of knowledge about Mars at the dawn of the space age.  Then we'll examine the picture of the red planet that emerged through the golden era of space exploration (1960s-1970s), through to the recent findings by rovers Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity.  In parallel, we'll read and discuss popular notions of Mars in science fiction literature, from the fantasy stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs to the hard science fiction of Kim Stanley-Robinson.  Students will learn about how science works from exploring how the modern portrait of Mars was pieced together.

ASTR 104/PHIL 104 Stars and the Sages: Philosophy and the Cosmos

The quintessential transdisiplinary introduction to a liberal arts education. Satisfies Epistemology requirement.

ASTR 107 Extrasolar Planet Research with Laboratory

Intended for science majors. Use our telescopes for real research.

ASTR 108 Discovering Our Universe with Laboratory

Intended for students from all disciplines. A project-based course that includes use of our telescopes.

See the main curriculum page for a complete list of courses and descriptions.

To ensure a safe environment for astronomy work at Whitin, the driveway and circle to the Observatory are closed to all motor vehicles from sunset until sunrise.Make sure that you attend the first class meeting of a subject which you intend to take, or hope to take if space is available. Generally speaking, registered or not, attending the first class meeting of the semester is required in order to be able to take the class.