Oliver Fraser

For Oliver Fraser, a lecturer at the University of Washington, teaching astronomy is nothing new. Fraser has his PhD in astronomy, and his main task is teaching undergrads, as well as bringing astronomy outside the university. But finding labs and activities suitable for his introductory undergraduate classes was a challenge. “I have an online class with 100 students,” he says. “So I needed something closed ended.” At the same time, since his class will be many of those students’ only science credits in college, he wanted to ensure that they got a real glimpse at the kind of work astronomers do, and the information they use to do it.

Fraser started using Voyages as a way to provide his students access to real but manageable astronomy data, and has worked out the kinks over four semesters of experience. He developed many of his own labs, honing some of the more open-ended Voyages activities into assignments with clear rubrics and quantitative goals for his students—and for his own sake, when it comes to grading.

“They all have their own data,” he explains, thanks to the massive trove of the SDSS catalog. So even if he’s asking each student the same questions, the nature of the data means they get subtly different answers.

Logistically, it makes it more difficult for students to simply copy each other’s work. But these differences also provide their own valuable science lesson about repeatability. Each student’s answers are valuable in their uniqueness. It’s a secondary lesson, but one that goes to the heart of how science really operates. For students used to science questions having one right answer to search for, which can be marked right or wrong, the beautiful messiness of real data can be a new window into the world of professional science.

From an astronomy perspective, Fraser’s labs give his students a chance to answer fundamental questions about galaxies using a widely recognized survey. “They’re going to the same website we would as scientists,” Fraser says. And there, they can perform, on a simple level, the same tasks scientists do as well. Fraser’s students measure galaxy distances and redshifts, and classify stars by studying their spectra.

Fraser wasn’t an astronomer who used SDSS for his research. And he still doesn’t. So for Fraser, the prospect of learning an entirely new mission database in enough detail to instruct his students wasn’t a reasonable investment of his time. But with Voyages, he says, that work is done for him. “I get clear instructions on how to access data or conduct operations,” he says. That allowed him to focus on the questions and lessons he wanted students to investigate, instead of the often painstaking instructions of how to guide undergraduates with no research or programming experience through a survey designed for professionals with plenty of both.

Fraser also likes that the Voyages labs operate through the web. It’s difficult enough, he points out, to teach students how to install and run programs just to view a FITS file, the standard in astronomy imaging. But with Voyages, as long as students have an internet connection, they can access the materials and complete the labs.

He’s confident enough in the labs he’s developed to share them on the University of Washington’s website. They are now part of the Astronomy Clearinghouse, a collection of labs and activities for teachers. Like Voyages itself, Fraser hopes that these activities will prove useful to teachers looking to share a more realistic view of the questions astronomers ask about the universe, and the tools, like SDSS, that they use to answer those questions.