People talk of grade inflation at Harvard, but there actually is a class that gives out automatic A’s—if you discover a planet, that is.
The optional final project for Astronomy 16: Stellar and Planetary Astronomy, taught for the last two years by Professor David Charbonneau, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Astrophysics, and this year by Dr. Douglas P. Finkbeiner, Associate Professor of Astronomy and of Physics, requires students to identify and trace the path of an exoplanet, a celestial body orbiting around another sun-like star. The task involves using a telescope to carefully track the brightness of a star over time, looking for drops in brightness resulting from a planet is passing.
Charbonneau, famous for discovering exoplanets himself (“That’s what I do,” he said), created the policy in 2009 because “problem sets and midterms are boring—they’re necessary for learning the material, but they’re boring.”
He added that he hoped to “get students excited about actual scientific research.”
Samuel M. Meyer ’13 was one of the students who succeeded at this project last spring. He and the three other members of Team Phoenix Ninja took three attempts to locate their exoplanet. The first night produced only “mediocre data,” and the second night’s try was obstructed by clouds. Despite initial difficulties, however, Meyer and his team were eventually successful.
“The data were rolling in on the third night, and I definitely had a feeling of pride and accomplishment in the work we’d done and the data we’d gathered,” said Meyer.
A precautionary note, however: only about 30 percent of students who attempt the project succeed, and it’s not meant to take the place of other course requirements.
“You can’t just blow off the class and at the end get an A,” said Finkbeiner. Indeed, the policy only applies to students who have received at least a C on all other portions of the class.
As Finkbeiner quipped: banking on the exoplanet project would be like “planning for retirement by counting on winning the lottery.” Those with sky-high hopes should take heed.