Astronomy Department: Goals and Objectives
Astronomy is the study of the entire universe and its important physical constituents, from the smallest particle to the largest natural object. We ask questions about the physical processes governing the formation, structure, composition, and evolution of the significant objects in the universe—things like planets, stars, collapsed objects, interstellar matter, galaxies, and dark matter, as well as their relationships to one another. We also ask similar questions about the universe itself. The questions we ask at Vassar do not differ much from the questions asked by any other astronomy department in the country, although we probably tend to be a bit more concerned with the historical development of the science, and place greater emphasis on its observational foundations.
Our methods, likewise, are not unique. As in all science, our objective is the construction of physical theories that, while simple in conception and application, are so powerful that they not only account for a broad range of observed laws but also make predictions that are falsifiable. The methods of astronomers are conditioned by the objects we study: controlled experiments in the usual sense are impossible, so the design, analysis, and interpretation of observations are a central concern. Astronomy constructs narratives about these objects, and uses not only the laws of physics, but also results from chemistry, geology, and occasionally biology to do so. We frequently require a deep understanding of these sciences, especially physics. Although we cannot use the experimental methods of the other physical sciences, it is the task of the astronomer to recognize and interpret experiments conducted by nature. Our methods often require the creation of theoretical and computational models to describe and explain observational data, to predict phenomena, and to uncover new physics, chemistry and geology.
At any liberal arts college, the tension between the breadth of education we believe in and the depth of study in astronomy demanded for entrance to graduate work is a central pedagogical problem. We believe that while our course offerings are very strong, the special power of the astronomy program at Vassar lies in extensive student-faculty interaction inside and outside the classroom, student access to observational data from on- and off- campus resources, and ample opportunity for faculty-guided undergraduate research during the term and through summer assistantships. Students study variable objects and stellar abundances with the largest optical telescope in the state, remote galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope, and participate in a number of summer programs off campus, often in areas of astronomy outside the specializations of the Vassar Faculty.For non-majors, We have two main goals: (1) to impart a broad understanding of the universe and its constituents and (2) to impart a realistic appreciation of the methods used to collect and interpret the astronomical evidence for that understanding. Introductory courses focus either on planets and the solar system, or on stars, galaxies, and cosmology. Students learn specific facts and, more importantly, come to understand why and how astronomers have developed their current understanding of the universe. They acquire the foundation for understanding the formation and evolution of specific astronomical objects, the ability to interpret graphical and numerical data, and an appreciation of the crucial role of uncertainty in both evidence and its interpretation. In the Freshman Writing Seminar on Life in the Universe, students additionally learn to distinguish between and write popular and technical scientific articles.We recognize two groups of majors, one interested in graduate work in astronomy, the other wishing to combine a strong background in astronomy with specialization in another field. For both, our goals are a mastery of basic astronomical literacy, an ability to do astrophysical computations and make astronomical observations, and an understanding of the methods of data analysis and interpretation. For the first group, we have the additional goal of an extensive understanding of physics, usually suggesting a double major. Beyond the introductory level, astronomy courses include several that specialize according to the objects studied (1) planetary and space science, (2) stellar astrophysics, (3) galaxies and (4) the interstellar medium. These develop the mathematical and physical tools necessary to interpret astrophysical phenomena, with practice through problem-solving and reading of technical journals. We also offer two levels of observational courses, which develop and expand a student’s ability to use astronomical instrumentation through extensive work at the Class of 1951 Observatory. Many students complete a senior thesis, and a similar number complete independent study in specialized areas. Students have the opportunity to do independent research during the summer through URSI or through off-campus internships, most notably through the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) exchange.
We have a strong tradition of student participation in research meetings off campus, both national, state, and through KNAC. Because astronomy is a relatively small field, we find it especially important to maintain ties with astronomy programs at other schools, and in this respect, KNAC has been a vital component of our program. This group of eight northeast liberal arts astronomy departments exchanges summer research students, supports faculty interaction, and collaborates on research.