Stars, Galaxies, and the Early Universe

ASTR 181  Spring 2020

Instructor: Dr. Jennifer Scott Help Sessions: 2:00 – 3:00 PM T
12:00  – 1:00 PM F
or by appointment
Contact: 410-704-3017 Smith 461
Lectures: sec. 5:  11:00 AM -12:15 PM T Th Smith 400
sec. 1,2:  12:30 -1:45 PM T Th Smith 356
Sec 1 1:00 – 2:50 PM F Smith 504
Sec 2 9:00 – 10:50 AM Th Smith 504
Sec 5 9:00 – 10:50 AM F Smith 504

1. Course Catalog Description 
A course for non-science majors covering stellar evolution, galaxies, cosmology, and possibly other topics including life elsewhere in the universe. Emphasizes determination of the distance scale and modern trends in astronomy. Develops and uses some algebra-based physics. Three lecture hours and one two-hour laboratory period. Students who have successfully completed ASTR 162 will not receive additional credit for ASTR 181. Prerequisite: high school algebra suggested. Core: Biological & Physical Sciences.

2. Learning Goals and Outcomes
University Core Learning Goals for Biological and Physical Sciences

  1. Students will display competency in essential skills required of a college graduate by:
    • Demonstrating knowledge of methods used to collect, interpret, and apply scientific data.
  2. Students will explore and integrate knowledge in order to understand how various disciplines interrelate by:
    • Articulating relevant basic assumptions, concepts, theoretical constructs and factual information of a discipline.
    • Understanding and applying relevant discipline-specific methodologies and strategies of inquiry
    • Applying appropriate critical-thinking/problem-solving skills and communication skills in discipline specific contexts.
  3. Students will use inquiry and critical judgment to make decisions by:
    • Reflecting and evaluating claims and evidence (rather than merely reporting information).
    • Thinking in complex terms that move beyond an either/or binary approach.

University Core Outcomes for Biological and Physical Sciences
Students will take a pre/post test as measures to assess the following objectives for learning outcomes:

  • Utilize scientific vocabulary and examples to describe major ideas appropriate to a specific scientific discipline.
  • Use quantitative reasoning to analyze and/or support scientific information.
  • Identify, describe critique, respond to, and construct the various components of the scientific process such as observations, inferences, operational definitions, aspects of scientific design, conclusions, control of variables, etc.
  • Explain scientific issues of current importance to society within scientific, technological, historical, societal and ethical contexts.

Specific Course Goals for Astronomy 181
Students should gain understanding of:
The nature of science

  • The universe is knowable and how we know it through experimentation, observation and theory.
  • Different types and degrees of uncertainty play a role in all of these.

How Science is performed and how scientific ideas change over time

  • Science is a cultural process.

Basic concepts in Astronomy

  • The nature, scope, evolution of the physical Universe and how the Sun and Earth fit in
  • Astronomical quantities and relevant physical laws
  • Some useful tools from related subjects like math and physics

Critical Thinking and Quantitative Reasoning

  • Analyzing what you read and hear
  • Making “back-of-the-envelope” estimates

3. Course Content
In this course, we will discuss:

  • The life cycles of stars: star formation (stellar “birth”), stellar evolution, end states of stars (stellar “death”)
  • The Milky Way Galaxy
  • The properties of other galaxies
  • Active Galaxies and Quasars
  • Cosmology and the Early Universe

Refer to Blackboard for details on the course schedule and assignments.

This course will not emphasize mathematics in the material. However, we cannot avoid math altogether and some basic algebra and geometry will be required. See the Background Material for some refresher pages. If you have trouble with this, please see me.

4. Requirements 
The grading criteria and overall components of the course grade are outlined in Section 5 and course policies, including policies on late assignments are given in Sections 6 and 9.

The instructor will guide each student’s learning in this course by:
  • holding office hours
  • being available outside those hours by appointment and through email communication
  • being open and receptive to ALL questions
  • making every effort to treat all students fairly
The student will be self-motivated in directing his or her own learning in this course by:
  • taking responsibility for knowledge of the prerequisites for the course
  • attending lectures and labs and keeping up with the necessary readings and assignments
  • turning in assignments promptly
  • keeping informed of course grade and seeking help when needed

5. Grading
Overall Philosophy
I aim for you to be as informed as possible about the grade you are earning in this course throughout the semester. If you are concerned about how well you are doing, examine your grades on Blackboard to compare your point total at any given time to the class average. See this page for more details on how final course grades are calculated. Consult this Strategies page for tips on how to do well in this course.

My goal is to provide ample opportunity for students to do well in the course. I allow you to drop one exam and one lab grade. I provide many ways to earn the 100 possible Participation and Engagement points. You can earn up to 15 points of extra credit in 6 different ways. All of this gives you good control over your own grade, and you can recover from a bad exam day or a missed assignment.

Some assignments and test items will consist of short essays and/or written answers to some questions. All written work will be graded for grammar and coherence, as well as content.

The labs and exams will include some calculations. I will always provide the equations needed to answer lab or exam questions. For full credit, you must show your work and your reasoning on these kinds of problems whenever possible.

Participation and Engagement
As shown in the grade break-down below, part of your grade will be based on how often you come to class and how much you participate in class discussions and activities. These points will come from randomly chosen graded and ungraded small group activities and clicker questions given throughout the semester. These are designed to improve your enjoyment of the course and your understanding of the material. Attendance at labs is mandatory for lab credit.

Grading scale
>93% 870-940(up to 955) points A
88-92% 823-869 points A-
83-87% 776-822 points B+
78-82% 729-775 points B
73-77% 682-728 points B-
68-72% 635-681 points C+
63-67% 588-634 points C
58-62% 541-587 points D+
52-57% 494-540 points D
<52% 0-493 points F
Components of your final grade (click on the links for more information)
Component Points Description
Exams 200 Three exams, lowest score is dropped. Coverage is not technically cumulative but concepts build on each other. Worth up to 100 points each.
Final exam 150 This exam will cover the entire course, and the grade cannot be dropped. Worth up to 150 points
Homework 150 Assignments due each week via Blackboard. Worth 10 points each.
Labs 240 You must be present at the lab to earn credit for it. Lab grading and make ups are the discretion of your lab instructor. If necessary, your lab total will be scaled to 25% of your final grade.
Project 100 Research question or creative project. May be done in groups of up to two people.
Participation- Engagement 100 Taken randomly from in-class clicker questions and small-group work. Best 100 of 100+ possible points to earn throughout the semester.
Optional Extra Credit 15 Select from the list. Worth up to 5 or 10 points each. Can earn a maximum of 15 points total from these.

6. Course Policies 
Your continued enrollment in the course implies agreement with these policies. They are non negotiable.

Academic Integrity
All students are responsible for reading and abiding by the Towson University Code of Conduct and Academic Integrity Policy. Towson University policies prohibit all forms of academic dishonesty, including cheating, plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication. It is the student’s responsibility to understand what these terms mean.

Any violation of the Academic Integrity Policy will result in a score of zero for the assignment or exam in question and letters to the Chair of the Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences and to the Office of Student Conduct and Civility Education. Particularly egregious and/or repeated offenses may result in failure of the course.

Please keep in mind:

  • Plagiarism is unacceptable.
  • Rephrasing someone else’s work does not constitute original work. In such cases, both parties will be subject to the actions described above.
  • It is often very easy to tell when people have copied from an online source or from another person’s work or from an online source.

Participation and Engagement
See the statements in Section 5.

Attendance is not strictly mandatory, but you will not earn points for in-class work, including clicker responses if you are not present with your internet-enabled device, to be used as a clicker. (See also Section 8.)

You will have the opportunity to make up in-class work only if you miss class for an excused reason as defined by University policies and provide documentation for the absence.

Students are responsible for reading the appropriate chapter in the class notes and in the textbook before coming to class. We will do many exercises in class and these will be of more benefit if you have read the material beforehand.

The use of the clicker questions in class will involve students giving responses to several questions throughout the lecture period.

Clicker Policies:

  • On some days, 1-2 points will be given for any response to a clicker question. On other questions, questions which are a review of material previously covered in class or by assigned readings, you will earn 2 points for a correct response to the question, 1 point for an incorrect response, 0 points for no response. All clicker points are part of your Participation -Engagement grade.
  • If you have a device that is not functioning, you must inform me but then you may write your responses on paper. If you do not have your device, you may do the same, but you will only receive 1/2 of the total clicker points for that day.
  • Studies have shown a link between low grades and frequent use of cell phones in class for extraneous purposes. Therefore, using smart phones in class will be for clicker questions only. If you are using your device for other purposes, you will be asked to put it away. You may lose Participation-Engagement points if you are asked to do this repeatedly.

7. Additional Requirements for Graduate Students 

8. Bibliography and Course Materials
The textbook for this course is a free online Open Educational Resources text available through Blackboard.

There is no laboratory manual. Labs will be made available through Blackboard. Labs will make use of the SkyNet Robotic Telescope Network, which will be used to make real telescope observations to be analyzed in the lab exercises during the lab meetings.

To avoid students needing to purchase a clicker for this course, we will be using smart phones or other internet-enabled devices to respond to clicker questions. The use of these devices in class is restricted to these responses, unless prior approval is given.

If you do not have an internet enabled device you can bring to class each day,
I will lend you one. Please discuss this with me.

See the Clicker Policies under Participation and Engagement in Section 6 above.

Web Materials
There is a Blackboard site for this course, at
This will be the portal for posting the course readings and for accessing and submitting course assignments. From Blackboard you can access this syllabus, the course schedule, information on assignments and on extra credit options from this page. You may check your course grade using Blackboard as well.

9. Additional Policies
Please come to class prepared to participate fully. As a courtesy to me and your fellow students, do not eat, drink, read extraneous materials, or engage in personal use of electronic devices while you are in class.

Writing Skills
As stated above in Section 5, part of the assessment for this course will be based on written work. Although determination of your grade will be focused on your knowledge of the science, it is very important to be able to convey thoughts and ideas adequately. Therefore, I expect that students will write neatly, clearly, and with proper grammar. Points may be deducted for poor written communication of ideas.

Graded Work
If you miss a deadline for an excused reason you can foresee, discuss this with me ahead of time- as soon as you are able. If it is unexpected, contact me within 48 hours of missing a deadline. If you are missing or dissatisfied with a grade you earn on a project or exam, you have a maximum of two weeks from when it was returned (usually electronically) to talk with me about it. After that, the grade I have will stand.

In other words, review your graded work and don’t wait until the end of the semester to be concerned about your course grade.

If you would like to discuss how a particular assignment was graded, you must come to my office hours or make an appointment. I will not conduct these individual discussions before or after class or via email.

There will be no multiple choice make-up exams. If you miss an exam for an excused reason as defined by University policies (with documentation), you may choose either a) to take an open format make-up exam within two weeks of the exam date, or b) to treat that exam as the one to be dropped from your final grade as described in Section 5. If you miss an exam for an unexcused reason, option b) will hold.

If you miss a lab for an excused reason as defined by University policies with documentation, instructors will work with you to make it up. You must inform your lab instructor as soon as possible about your situation and request a day and time for a make-up within two weeks of the missed lab.

If the above does not apply:

  • The first missed lab may be treated as the lab automatically dropped from your final grade.
  • Additional missed labs will result in zeros for the assignments

If you do not turn in any component of the observing project assignment on time 20% of the points will be deducted per day, ie. after 5 days you will receive a zero no matter what. Days start counting at the due date and time and include weekends. You may turn in the assignment late for full credit only with an excused reason, as defined by University policies and with documentation.

There is no make-up for these online assignments if you miss the deadline. Plan enough time to allow for any possible technical problems. I will reset your assignment only if your computer or session crashes while you are taking it, and the deadline has not yet passed. If you have technical problems at the last minute and I cannot reset the quiz for you, I will accept answers e-mailed to me or left on my voice mail before the deadline only. I will not accept quiz answers emailed to me after the deadline.

In Class Work:
You may earn the points for in class work if you miss class for an excused  reason as defined by University policies and if you provide documentation of that absence. However, make-up of Participation-Engagement points will only be for special circumstances, as it will still be possible to earn the full 100 possible points even if a student misses one or two class periods.

Diversity Mission Statement
The Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geosciences, in accordance with the Fisher College of Science and Mathematics Diversity Plan
and with the Towson University Strategic Plan, believes that we must support initiatives that promote diversity among FCSM faculty, staff and students  while continuing to meet the workforce needs of the State of Maryland. To fulfill that vision, we are committed to increasing the quality and diversity of our students, faculty and staff while increasing retention and curriculum initiatives.

Repeated Course
If a student fails this course, it can be repeated once. As described in the undergraduate catalog, a third attempt to take this course requires prior approval.

Course Withdrawals
See the undergraduate catalog for a description of course withdrawals and the university calendar for a list of important dates. Please feel free to consult with me if you have any questions related to course withdrawals.

I look forward to a rewarding semester. Enjoy!