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Astrophysics Rethinks Requirements

Department decides to place less emphasis on graduate school prep

A revised set of requirements for the Astrophysics concentration will make the field more accessible to students interested in the topic, taking the focus off of graduate-level preparation and emphasizing flexibility, according to professors familiar with the changes.

The overhaul of the concentration centered on the department’s realization that “we didn’t have to make our requirements embody everything we would expect to see of an applicant to grad school,” said David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy and the director of undergraduate studies.

As a relatively small concentration to begin with, the Astronomy department noticed a “very disturbing trend” of declining numbers of concentrators, said Jonathan “Josh” E. Grindlay, a professor of astronomy.

“Astrophysics as a part of physics is becoming more exciting, and we thought, ‘We need an overhaul,’” Grindlay said. “We don’t offer enough exciting and appropriate-level courses.”

The modifications to the concentration currently called “Astronomy and Astrophysics” were approved by the Educational Policy Committee earlier this month without revisions, said Stephanie H. Kenen, the associate dean of undergraduate education.

The changes come as part of a string of curricular reconsiderations this year. The English department had an overhaul of its concentration requirements approved by the EPC in February, and the Classics department—also citing a desire to remove its course of study from an emphasis on graduate-level rigor—voted to approve wide-ranging changes early this month.

Astronomy faculty cited concerns that current requirements forced students to take multiple years of math and physics before gaining access to higher level concentration courses within the department.

“Students would go off and start running into exciting topics in physics and [earth and planetary sciences] and math and decide to concentrate in one of those other fields instead,” said Charbonneau.

In order to give the new Astrophysics concentration its own introductory sequence, the revised requirements will be grounded by a pair of introductory level courses—Astronomy 16: “Stellar and Planetary Astronomy,” and Astronomy 17: “Galactic and Extragalactic Astronomy”—that resemble the introductory couplings already present in the Physics, Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Life Sciences concentrations.

Both courses in the new introductory pairing will use only single variable calculus, and will provide a rigorous survey of astrophysics—addressing “everything from black holes to the Big Bang,” according to Charbonneau.

The department will also offer a secondary field next year for students interested in astrophysics who do not wish to make the subject their primary concentration.

PICK AND CHOOSE

The department has fashioned three new upper level courses and an observational course to give students maximum flexibility in choosing the courses they find most appealing.

Astronomy 110: “Exoplanets” is for those interested in “how astronomers are finding planets and look for life,” Astronomy 130: “Cosmology” should be taken “if you want to learn about the big bang and the age of the universe,” and Astronomy 120: “Stellar Physics” discusses stars and their formation and degeneration, Charbonneau said.

In addition, Astronomy 100: “Methods of Observational Astronomy,” will take students on a field trip to the F.L. Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins in Arizona, where students will be able to gather data using the powerful telescopes located there.

Charbonneau said he hopes that every class of concentrators will ultimately be able to take such a field trip and work with telescopes first-hand, and that in the future such trips can be taken to international observatories so that students can also experience a different language and culture.

Wanting to embody the spirit of general education and allow concentrators to pursue honors, do a thesis, take a semester abroad, or participate in extracurricular activities, the department has also reduced the total number of concentration requirements from 16 to 12, said Charbonneau.

Where the current concentration serves to prepare students for graduate school, the new requirements—while allowing for an exposure to astrophysics—will have to be supplemented with additional courses to allow viable bids for graduate school admission.

Senior theses, often an important springboard for graduate school applications, will no longer be required.

“We have an obligation to train students who are interested in a solid experience in the natural science, but don’t necessarily want to go to graduate school and become research scientists,” said James M. Moran, chair of the Department of Astronomy, in an e-mailed statement.

The Educational Policy Committee’s Kenen said she was pleased with how thoughtful the department had been in their concentration revisions, allowing the EPC to approve them without reservation.

“They really sat down and, from scratch, thought about ‘what is the purpose of an undergraduate education?’ and ‘what should that program look like?’” she said.

After the department discussed the proposed changes in the spring and fall of 2008, the concentration was approved by the department’s faculty in November 2008 and submitted to the Educational Policy Committee in February of 2009 before being approved earlier this month.

As for the name change—the concentration will go from “Astronomy and Astrophysics” to “Astrophysics”—Moran said that it more accurately characterized what students and faculty are doing.

“Astronomy as practiced in the modern era is astrophysics,” Charbonneau said.

Charbonneau, who e-mailed current Astronomy and Astrophysics students just before the March spring break to announce the changes, was not the only one excited about the new concentration.

“I think people are going to love it,” said Christopher W. Stubbs, chair of the Department of Physics and professor of astronomy. “Can you tell I’m happy about it?”

—Staff writer Alissa M. D’Gama can be reached at adgama@fas.harvard.edu.
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