Undergraduate Astronomy Journal Club

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Louis-Benoit Desroches, Astronomy

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

My semester as a GSI for Astronomy 7A (Introductory Astronomy for Majors) in the fall of 2003 reminded me of my time as an undergraduate taking the same type of course, eager to learn all I could about the wonders of astronomy. And indeed, students walk out of that course and the Berkeley astronomy undergraduate program in general with an excellent astronomy education. But just as I did when I was an undergrad, students here are asking for more.

The problem is that current hot topics in astronomy do not necessarily make it to the classroom, where classic, well known and established concepts are taught, in order to build a strong foundation of astronomical knowledge for the students. Professors may occasionally include interesting recent results in their lectures, but not much time is available for this type of discussion. As a result, students can sometimes emerge from astronomy programs without much knowledge of the current state of the field. Several keen and eager students, however, have inquired with the department undergraduate advisor about opportunities to discuss such topics outside of the classroom.

Many such forums do exist within the department, including weekly colloquia, a wide range of seminars (several per week) and journal club (where recent journal articles are discussed). These discussions are designed for faculty and graduate students, however, and can be highly technical in nature. This creates a barrier for undergrads, and while they are encouraged to attend, very few actually do.

In order to rectify this, I began discussions with the department chair and the Astronomy 7A instructor (who is also the undergrad advisor) about the possibility of creating an undergraduate journal club. This would be an informal discussion group that would meet roughly once a week, with several students giving 10-15 minute presentations on interesting astronomy journal articles. The students would be free to chose any topic in astronomy, hopefully from non-technical magazines such as Discover, Scientific American, Nature, and Science. This would allow the students to keep up to date with current astronomical research while at the same time practice their presentation skills (of paramount importance in the scientific community, and yet not emphasized in most astronomy courses!). Discussion amongst the students would follow the presentations. My role in this journal club would be to organize, help steer the discussions, try to answer student questions and provide constructive feedback to the students on their presentations, helping them improve. Another benefit of such a club is that it allows astronomy undergrads of various years to socialize in an informal setting, and can help them work together in the future for their coursework.

Both the department chair and the undergrad advisor gave me very positive support to initiate this club, which began in March of 2004. New students continue to inquire with the undergrad advisor about current research discussion opportunities, and are redirected to this undergraduate journal club.

The club is open to astronomy majors from any year. The club is steadily growing, with new students appearing every week. There are currently 10-15 students in the club. Many have told me in person that they very much appreciate this opportunity, and are enjoying the many discussions that arise from the presentations. I have noticed general presentation skills improving as well, as each student learns and builds on the habits of the previous student and through repetition perfects their delivery. Presentations are better prepared, with excellent visual aids (such as viewgraphs or a computer slideshow), with a more focused and logical structure to the talk.

Although the club is relatively new, the above preliminary observations indicate that it is a successful addition to the Berkeley undergraduate astronomy program. Students appear to enjoy and appreciate the club, as well as benefit from the discussions and presentation practice. I hope to continue organizing this journal club as long as I am at Berkeley.