Using Astronomy To Teach Physics

APS and AAPT Endorsed Workshop, July 27–30, University of Nebraska, Lincoln


The past decades’ discoveries and technologies of astronomy, astrophysics, and space science are remarkable, engaging, and rich in physics. This summer there will be a workshop at University of Nebraska, Lincoln to explore ways to use these materials to enrich college and university physics instruction. This is a challenging task. Do you want to help?

Stars orbiting a black hole at the center of our Galaxy, exo-planets, and quantitative cosmology – and the technologies that underlie them – such as IR detectors, multi-mirror telescopes, long baseline radio interferometry, orbiting x-ray and gamma-ray telescopes – are only a few examples of topics that are both exciting and rich in physics. They engage students.

These and other discoveries shape our understanding of humanity’s place in the universe. Every student should know this story. And every physics student should know the physics that supports this modern version of Newton’s System of the World.

The challenge of the UATP workshop is to find practical ways to encourage the effective use of astronomy to enhance college and university physics instruction. By participating in the workshop you can help define the challenge and meet it.

Workshop Goals

Some fifty astronomers and physicists will work together to identify materials derived from astronomy, astrophysics, and space science suitable to use in physics instruction. They will propose actions to produce useful teaching materials and suggest strategies to encourage their use in physics courses. Possible actions might be to
  • outline possible physics texts with a strong astronomical flavor (at least one such text is now in preparation);
    • paper text
    • wiki text
    • syllabus of physics study using web-based astronomy and space science materials
  • construct, compile, and disseminate physics problems that use discovery data from astronomy to illustrate physics principles, e.g.
    • Andrea Ghez's beautiful orbits of stars around the Galactic center that reveal the black hole there or
    • Dave Charbonneau's exoplanet data from Kepler
  • describe themes for organizing a physics course around research results from astronomy and space science, e.g.
    • the modern version of Newton's system of the world, our current perception of Earth's situation in the Universe,
    • the physics that explains the properties of stars
    • the physics students need to know to understand important parts of the astronomers' latest decadal study.
  • prepare modules of instructional material based on discoveries or technologies of astronomy.
    • different modules for different physics courses, e.g.,optics of multi-mirror telescopes
      • infra red astronomy -- detectors and their physical properties
      • Interferometry in several modes – optical, radio, gravitational radiation – LIGO
      • nuclear physics of gamma-ray astronomy -- Fermi
  • recruit authors to write articles describing the modules with the aim of publishing these in the American Journal of Physics special issue “Using Astronomy and Space Science Research in Physics Courses” to be published in the spring of 2012.

Where and When

The University of Nebraska, Lincoln will host the workshop on the UNL campus from July 27 to July 30, 2011. AAPT is handling the registration details. These include links to lodging arrangements – there is a dormitory option as well as a convenient hotel with special rates for workshop participants. The registration website will be at and will open in early February. The registration fee is $250 which includes the welcome dinner the evening of July 27. The registration fee for non-participating companions is $50.

Contact Kevin Lee at UNL or Charles H. Holbrow for more information or if you wish to be invited. The capacity of the workshop is limited, so it is a good idea to inquire soon.

Related Events

The UNL workshop is part of a larger effort to encourage and help physicists to introduce more astronomy research results into their courses.
  • In June 2012 there will be a Gordon Research Conference–Physics Research and Education, on using research results from astronomy to teach physics.
  • The April 2012 issue of the American Journal of Physics will be devoted to the theme of using astronomy in physics instruction.
  • May 25, 2011 there will be a special session “Using Astronomy to Teach Physics” at the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) meeting in Boston. The speakers in the session will be David Charbonneau (Astronomy & CfA, Harvard U.), Max Tegmark(Physics, MIT), Joseph Amato(Physics & Astronomy, Colgate U.), Karen Kwitter (Astronomy, Williams College), Philip Sadler (CfA, Harvard U.) and Chris Impey (Astronomy, U. Arizona).

Disclaimer—The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.