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Chat times for 2023-2024
Tues 1:00p-2:30p ET / 10:00a - 11:30a PT

Dr. Christe Ann McMenomy

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Student Guide

Student Survival Guide for Scholars Online Astronomy Course

How to survive a science course, with special attention to the problems of studying physics

Why Study Science?

At the heart of all science is something called the scientific method. The simple version of the scientific method is based on the idea that the objective reality of the universe can be determined by carefully observing phenomena, recording appropriate measurements, then studying the data from these observations for patterns that can be used to describe the general behavior of classes of natural objects. When we can control the circumstances of the observations, we are performing experiments, but often we cannot control all the factors before we make observations. There are scientists who believe that the only valid scientific data is that which comes from controlled experiments; in their view, most of astronomy, meteorology, geology, and many parts of biology are not rigorously scientific.

In astronomy, we use a somewhat looser definition of valid scientific observation that accepts carefully recorded observations of natural phenomena as they occur, since we cannot predict (as yet) supernovae, or produce stars for close repeated experiments under lab conditions.

Many astronomical events are periodic, that is, they happen over and over with much the same frequency, in much the same way. When scientists find periodic phenomena that occur in the same order and at the same rate, they want to study them to see if there is some kind of cause-and-effect relationship between them. This can involve looking at record of past observations as well as making new observations. The planets move in complex patterns that repeat only over long periods of time, so that centuries of observations are necessary to see the periodic pattern.

When scientists find similarities between objects, or patterns of behavior that repeat with little variation, they want to study the similarities to see if there is some common cause behind them. When the scientist finds a reasonable explanation, he or she proposes a hypothesis, a testable statement about the phenomena. Hypotheses that stand up over many repeated observations are combined to make theories; distillations of theories that have no known exceptions may be called natural laws. In astronomy, we are particularly concerned with theories of space, time, and relativity; and with the natural laws of motion, gravity, light propagation, and thermodynamics.

The Science Course Online

Science classes are frightening for many students. They anticipate difficulties with the concepts, with the details, and especially with the math. But science is just one way of thinking about the natural world around us, and anyone can learn to think like a scientist. Don't waste energy worrying about your ability to learn the material; use your energy to learn it! Once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to discover, understand, and appreciate the complexity of God's creation better. You will also be better prepared to take your place as a steward of that creation.

Review the prerequisites for the course. These are the concepts and math skills that you should have mastered in order to succeed in learning the material. The math prerequisites for this course are described in the course overview page and the FAQs page. If you have any questions about your readiness for the course, be sure to ask for help during our first session. I will arrange to work with you so that you can gain the required skills quickly.

Every science course has as its main components lectures, reading assignments, labs, and lots of homework to prepare you for taking quizzes and exams. In addition to these, our online course has this website, the Moodle, and e-mail to provide the functions that would normally exist in talking to your teacher face-to-face, or looking at a bulletin board or whiteboard. Keeping track of all the components can be a daunting task, especially at first, so plan to spend some time becoming familiar with the course website, your text, and the Moodle. Once you have mastered the mechanics of using these tools, you can concentrate on learning the material that they contain.

Why are there so many parts to the course? Well, part of the reason is that you learn in many ways. You memorize facts, you comprehend relationships, and eventually, you understand concepts. You learn by reading, by analyzing pictures and graphs, by watching demonstrations of processes, by participating in discussions, and by applying what you are learning to specific situations in the homework and labs. You "cement" what you've learned by teaching others. The organization and materials of the course require that you take all these approaches.

Managing Your Time

Make the commitment, now, to spend adequate time on coursework. This course will challenge you mathematically as well as conceptually, so you must realize right from the start that you cannot do all the work for a given unit on one day ... and you shouldn't do it just before chat session! The table below is a rough guide and a suggested pace for this course. The amount of time you spend on each part of the assigned work will vary greatly from student to student, and your schedule will of course depend on your other commitments. Work out a reasonable work load and stick to it!

Try to do your reading as early as possible. This allows you to think about the questions and material, review it in your mind, and absorb it more critically.

Checklist and schedule

Completed? Task Approximate Time Scheduled for...
1 _____ Check Moodle for instructions for next chat session 15 minutes Immediately after each class session
2 _____ Read Next Web Lecture 1/2-1 hour Wednesday
3 _____ Read Text Assignment (and work through example problems or questions!) 1-2 hours Wednesday
4 _____ Work through plantarium exercises [Astro], watch videos [Chem], perform Lessons (if any) or simulations [Phys] 1-2 hour Friday
5 _____ Complete Mastery Exercises 1-2 hours Friday/Monday
6 _____ Complete individual problem and post solution to Moodle 1/2 hour Before chat when due
8 _____ Attend Chat and ASK QUESTIONS 1.5 hours Chat Schedule
8 _____ Plan and perform for lab 1-2 hours Tues
9 _____ Perform calculations/reduce data 1 hour Two days before lab due
10 _____ Write lab report 1 hour Day before lab due
11 _____ Take Moodle quiz 20-30 minutes (only at the end of the chapter)

Web Lectures

Rather than take our precious chat time by lecturing to you, all unit lectures are posted to the site. You need to read these as well as the text. The Homework and Weblecture pages between them have

The "checkpoint" exercises ask you to figure something out, then offer you the opportunity to check your answer. Try to figure things out before hitting the "answer" button! If you were correct, and your reasoning was correct, congratulations! You are ready to continue with the next concept. If you missed the answer, but understand the correction, make a note to review the concept later. If you don't understand the explanation, ask the teacher during class, or send e-mail requesting further help.

As you read the web lecture, make notes on anything that puzzles you, and be sure to raise your questions in class.

Getting to Know the Textbook

Astronomy has long been considered the queen of the sciences, the one in which the basic concepts of math, physics, chemistry and now even biology come together. Although there is not a lot of "heavy math" in this text, certainly not in comparison to the Scholars Online chemistry or physics courses, there are still a lot of concepts to master and integrate.

Examine your copy of Universe (Kaufmann and Freedman, ed. 10) as soon as it arrives.Our astronomy text has a number of boxes that contain instructions on how astronomers apply physical laws to data and determine new quantities using mathematical calculations. You may be tempted to ignore these as "extra" material, on the order of enrichment for those more dedicated than you (at least, at the moment). I earnestly encourage you to set aside the time to work through the examples and make sure you understand how to perform the calculations, since something similar will almost certainly show up in your mastery exercises. You may even want to mark them with a sticky note, to make them easier to find when you are doing homework problems that rely on these concepts.There are also a number of appendices at the end of the text. These have useful information and data on the planets, example stars, and important constants used in equations. You will often need to look up information in these pages to use when you answer mastery exercise or individually-assigned homework problems

As you plan your reading, be sure that you give yourself enough time to

For any calculation examples in the text, make sure that you understand

Doing Homework

Homework is not merely useful, it is essential for mastering the concepts of any science course. Just as we test theories by applying them to experimental situations, you test your understanding by applying it to specific situations. You will know whether you understand a concept if you can use it to solve a "real-world" problem, and when you can teach it to someone else.

You will be assigned word-essay questions, observational data analysis, and calculation problems for each unit as part of a forum, mastery exercise, or lesson found in the Moodle section for the week. Moodle lessons may present new information not covered in detail in your text, and test your comprehension of this material. Mastery exercises will test your understanding of terminology and your ability to distinguish closely related concepts and apply them correctly to examples. You may be asked to identify components of a system by matching terminology, labelling diagrams, or completing a crossword-puzzle challenge. Some examples will ask you to perform basic tasks several times in different ways to make sure that you understand how to apply them. You may be led step-by-step through a complex calculation, then asked to calculate a similar example on your own. Follow any directions to express your answer in a particular format so that it will be correctly scored! Study exercise feedback even if you got the right answer, so that you can use the method or information in other situations.

You will also be asked to post the answer for at least one question or essay topic to a Moodle forum shared by your fellow students for discussion. If the question involves calculation, you will need to show your calculations and explain them in your posted answer. This is your opportunity to explain to your fellow students what you know — to teach the idea to someone else.

Your reading assignment will be on both the Moodle and the Schedule page, along with links to my Web lecture and study notes for the assignment. You are expected to do any online exercises, watch any videos, and complete any tutorials assoicated with the reading that are assigned in the homework page or weblecture. Questions based on this material may be included in your mastery exercises, individually-assigned problems, or quizzes.

NB: mycroft, the original bot for my science classes, has long since been freed to do other things, like attend class, make obnoxious remarks, and aid stumped students. If you really get stuck figuring out the problem you've been asked to post, mycroft has been known to accept bribes in the form of virtual Oreo cookies to finish your problem for you.

Essay Questions

Essay questions ask you to explain a concept in words. As you answer a science essay question, be prepared to cite calculation information as well as concepts, or give examples.

Here is an example: Why can't you see any surface features on Mercury when it is closest to the Earth?

A good answer will be grammatically and syntactically correct, using proper English, as well as contain the correct information. It will cover more than one point in supporting its argument.

You cannot see any surface features on Mercury because it is always very close to the sun. Much of the time, its reflected light (which is low because its abledo is only .12, meaning that it reflects only 12% of the light falling on it) is lost in the sun's glare. When it is furthest from the sun, it still can only be seen just after sunset or just before sunrise, when it's near the horizon. Its image is distorted since it's seen through the maximum amount of Earth's atmosphere.

Doing Math Questions

Most astronomy concepts are based on simple physics principles. Newton's form of Kepler's law (which we discuss in chapter 4) is

p2 = [ 4 pi 2/G(m1 + m2)] a3

which is relatively simple math. Our problem is in the application of such concepts to real situations.

So here is a "general problem solving" approach.

  1. Visualize the situation described. Make sure that you understand what is happening in the real or idealized physical event.
  2. Identify and list all known values given in the problem and the unknown to be found.
  3. If appropriate, chose a coordinate system that simplifies the math.
  4. Determine whether or not the units should be converted, and complete the conversion (e.g., one value is listed in grams, but your constant is in kilograms).
  5. Set up a notation system for the knowns and unknowns, so that you can use the symbols in math relationships.
  6. Check for any hidden information — values that you know because of the situation, but which may not be explicitly given in the description. For example, starting velocities for "falling" objects (not thrown) are assumed to be zero.
  7. Look for a relationship that relates what you know to what you don't know. You need one equation per unknown value.
  8. Solve the formula for the unknown. Don't substitute values in prematurely: you'll only wind up doing more math. Make sure that your units will cancel to give you the correct units for the answer. For example, if you set up a formula to find distance, and the units of the knowns cancel to sec-1, you've done something wrong.
  9. Once you have the final version of the formula isolating the unknown and setting it equal to known values, substitute the known values into place.
  10. Do the arithmetic.
  11. Check your answer for reasonableness, direction, and proper units.

Let's look at an example:

Given that Jupiter's moon Io orbits Jupiter at 421600km in 1.77 days, what is the combined mass of Io and Jupiter?

  1. Visualize the situation described. Be sure that you understand the concepts involved before you think about how they relate to a mathematical description. Here, visualize what is happening: Io orbits Jupiter under the influence of their mutual gravitational attraction, according to the law of gravity.
  2. Identify and list all the "knowns" and the "unknowns". We know Io's distance from Jupiter and Io's period.; these were given in the problem statement. If they had not been, we could refer to the appendix to determine them. We need to find the combined mass of Io and Jupiter.
  3. Set up a notation system for the knowns and unknowns, so that you can use the symbols in math relationships. Distance between two orbiting bodies is usually designated with r, so r = 421600km. Period is p = 1.77 days; mass will be mJ + mI.
  4. Check for any hidden information — values that you know because of the situation, but which may not be explicitly given in the description. There are no unknowns to worry about; but we may need to change units, depending on the relationship we use.
  5. List everything you know and the unknowns, in Standard units (meters, seconds, grams)

    r = 421600km = 4.216 * 108m
    p = 1.77 days = 1.529 * 105s
    mI + mJ = X gr
  6. Look for a relationship that relates what you know to what you don't know. You need one equation per unknown value. In this case the relationship we need is the law cited above:
    p2 = [ 4 pi2/G(m1 + m2)] a3
  7. Solve the formula for the unknown. Don't substitute values in prematurely: you'll only wind up doing more math. We need the sum of the masses, m1 + m2, which in this case are mI + mJ. Solving gives us
    m1 + m2 = 4 pi2a3 / Gp2
  8. Once you have the final version of the formula in place, substitute the known values into place.
    m1 + m2 = 4 pi2(4.216*108)3 / (6.67 * 10-11)(1.529*105)2
  9. Do the arithmetic.
    If you work out the numbers above, m1 + m2 = 1.9 * 1027kg
  10. Check your answer for reasonableness, direction, and proper units.
    Comparing this number with value for Jupiter in the appendix shows that we are at the right order of magnitude.

You are done!

Getting the Most from Chat

During our weekly meeting, we will base our discussion on the material in our textbook. We will also discuss demonstrations found on the web or in our Moodle, websites of related interest, homework problems, and any observations that you make during the week.

If you come to chat without any questions, you aren't paying enough attention to the material!

You may raise questions about the material from the text, my web lectures, your homework, your labs, and when we have time, from news media articles with an astronomy connection, such as the discovery of extra solar planets, space station development, or the detection and identification of black holes. I realize that there are diverging scientific, philosophical, and theological opinions on much of the material that we cover, particularly on the origin of the universe.

You may challenge any statement made in class or in your text, as long as you do so politely. You do not have to agree with all of the tenets proposed by your textbook authors, your teacher, or your fellow classmates, but you should be able to clearly state their arguments in terms they would accept, and address your concerns to those positions. Act with respect to each proponent and assume that each is trying to make the best sense of the universe.

I do consider your contributions to our discussion in determining your final grade and making comments, so don't just sit back and watch others type. If you have questions, ask them! When you are assigned a report topic or a homework problem to post, be sure that you have spent adequate time to prepare not only the formal content that you post to the class forum in the Moodle, but also to anticipate the questions of your fellow students about your topic.

Chat sessions are 90 minutes. Plan accordingly, and take a break just before class starts. Do some stretching, go to the bathroom, eat or get your drinks before you enter the classroom. Be sure to try to connect to your ISP and check mail 10 minutes before class if possible, in case any late notices have been sent by the teacher. Give yourself the extra time. High traffic on your ISP or the school server can slow you down and force you to miss the first 5 to 10 minutes of class.

If you have not already done so, post any pre-chat preparation materials, including essays and individually-assigned problems, to the Moodle before chat.

Bring your textbook, notes, homework calculations, calculator, and paper and pencil to class. If you are comfortable using a desktop calculator and taking notes in a text utility like Notepad (available as different applications on both Windows and Macintosh), you can use those. You may also find a dictation program like Dragon helps reduce typing, either into chat or taking notes. Take notes during class. Since Scholars Online logs the chat sessions, you do not need to document things the teacher or other students say, but it is useful to note your own questions and observations as they occur, so that you can study them later.

Take part in the discussion. Ask questions as they occur to you (or note them and ask them at the end of class).

Chat sessions in science subjects frequently involve discussion of mathematical calculations. One convention we use is underscore (_) for subscript and up-arrow (^) for superscript. The term x_1 ^2 means "take the value x-sub-1 and square it". You may be more used to seeing this written as x12, and we can actually do that in Dr. Bruce's chat, but it requires a bit of typing. If you prefer to use HTML tags, then here's a quick guide:

After chat, log into the chat window again, hit the button for past chat logs, and print the log out. As soon as possible after class, review the log and make notes on it about any points that bother you, and be sure to ask about these in our next session. Mark important points for review later. Consult your notes or the Scholars Online copy of the log to review before the next session and before semester examinations


All the examinations (quizzes, midterms, or semester exams) which I use to evaluate your understanding and progress in the course will be based on the mastery exercises and individually-assigned problems draw from the text. It is therefore very important that you complete your homework assignments, study questions, and any reports assigned to prepare for the exams for this course.

There will be an online quiz for each chapter, which will be available on the Moodle when we have finished discussing the material in the chapter. You must complete the mastery exercise with a passing score before you will be allowed to take the quiz. These quizzes include 10-30 multiple choice, short calculation, and other format questions and are timed. When you take the quiz, you will receive immediate feedback for your attempt. You will have a chance to take make up any missed quiz during the grace period before midterm exams.


Start your review two weeks prior to the scheduled examination.

There will be several major exams (midterms), after major sections of the text are completed. These may be mailed electronically to you, or you may take them on the Moodle. Either way, you will need your parent or other responsible adult to act as as proctor. If you take the exam (or part of the exam, such as the multiple choice section) in the Moodle, you will need to complete it before it closes. If I email the exam to you, or if you take the problem section of the exam on paper, you will need to type or scan in your answers to a computer file, and upload the file to the Moodle assignment for that exams before the assignment closes.

Most exams will include a multiple-choice or other format objective section, an essay section, and a problem section, and an "lab" section which involves analysis of observational data. All sections are closed book — you may not refer to a textbook or other resources. For Physics, Chemistry, and Astronomy, you may bring to these exams one 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper with whatever notes on it that you desire — so don't worry about memorizing formula. Learn concepts and applications!


Study Groups

Yes, of course you may study together — remember that explaining or teaching what you just learned to someone else is one of the important techniques of learning! You may also work together to solve individually-assigned problems or essay topics, and mastery exercise quetions. Be sure that you can complete all homework assignments on your own afterwards, since you cannot work as a study group on quizzes or examinations. Let me know if you need special chat times for your study group.

Doing Labs: The Scientific Experience

One of the basic methods of science is to secure documented observations of periodic or common events in order to make some general summary about the behavior of natural objects. We can do this in several ways.

Special concerns for Astronomy Labs

Determining Observing Times

Universal Time: The occurance of most events is listed in the literature as though you lived in Greenwich, England, on the Prime Meridian (0 degrees longituded), in hours and minutes of Universal Time, using a 24-hour clock. If you use a program such as Starry Night or Voyager III (there are about a dozen good ones), you can set the local time display for your location. Then when you look up an event such as a lunar eclipse in Sky and Telescope, you can easily "process" to the proper Universal Time listed, and see your local time displayed as well. But it is theoretically possible that you may be without this software from time to time.

Correcting for clock time. Universal Time is 5 hours earlier than Eastern Standard Time (8 hours earlier than Pacific Standard Time.) To determine when an event scheduled for 23:15 UT will occur in your local time zone, subtract the number of hours different. UT 23:15 is 15:15 PST.

Remember that if your local time is currently using Daylight Savings Time, your clock has "sprung forward" one hour: 15:15PST is 14:15 PDT. So an event at 23:15 UT on August 15 will occur when it is 14:15 in Seattle, or in the middle of the Seattle day (and probably be unobservable).

Sidereal Time: Long-duration phenomena are not listed as occuring at any given moment; rather, the location of the phenomena is listed in terms of celestial coordinates. Suppose a comet makes an appearance, and, moving slowly, will be at 6 hours Right Ascension, -18 degrees (south) declination. You want to know when it will be visible.

Aligning a Telescope

We will have a lab on Basic Telescope Techniques, where we go into details about aligning your sighter scope or ring, and setting up your telescope to track properly if you have a celestial mount. Be prepared to spend some time at the beginning of each lab doing these alignment tasks.

Using Binoculars

Binoculars are very useful instruments for viewing large areas of the sky. Even low-power binoculars (8X) can show you the craters of the moon, the phases of Venus, the rich starfields of the Milky Way, the hazy disc of Andromeda, and the 4 large moons of Jupiter, and give you a sense of position in space that is difficulat to achieve with a more powerful telescope.

The major problem with binoculars is that they are usually hand-held, causeing the image to jump around. When using binoculars to view astronomical objects, try to brace your arms or the binoculars against a stable object (the side of the house, a fence post, the hood of your car). If possible, mount the binoculars on a camera tripod or telescope tripod.

Writing Lab Reports

Your lab report is the evidence of your observations of a particular phenomena. Your observations should be presented in such a way that the data is easy to understand and supports your conclusions, but also with enough detail on how you obtained them that any peer with similar equipment could repeat your experience and confirm your results (or challenge them, as the case may be).

Organization: A good science lab report has at least seven sections:

  1. The abstract: a short paragraph explaining the goal of the lab, the overall purpose or hypothesis, the type of data gathered, and the conclusions.
  2. Materials and equipment: a description of the consumable materials and the observing equipment, instruments used to collect data. For standard equipment, references to the make and model are generally sufficient, along with verification that the equipment was tested for proper calibration.. If the equipment was modified, or specially configured, describe the new settings. If the equipment was specially built, either summarize the intent and purpose of the equipment and methods of calibration, or refer to other documents which provide this information.
  3. Procedure: a description of the process (in the case of a complex process, a list of steps) taken to secure the data. This should be detailed enough to allow peers in the field to repeat the measurements you made under simillar circumstances. Any choices you made that might affect results should be stated, along with the reasons you made them.
  4. Raw Data: the numbers you copied from instruments, descriptions of what you saw with your own eys, notes to yourself about odd things that happened, and rough sketches made during the observation. They might also include photographs, data collected by computer, and so forth. In many cases, the amount of data collected this way exceeds the space available in a formal report, so you do not need to include all of it. You should select representative samples of this data, and retain your notebooks with the actual raw data for reference if anyone questions your results.
  5. Sample Calculations: at least one each of any calculations you did to determine reliability (statistical analyses) or to figure out derived data (e.g., density from volume and mass measurements). This allows a reviewer (such as your teacher) to determine whether you used the proper technique of data reduction in this situation.
  6. Processed Data: all the processed data on which you base your results in the most useful forms. Frequently this involves creating a table, and may additionally involve preparing graphs to show trends.
  7. Conclusions: your assessment of whether your originaly hypothesis or assumptions are supported by actual phenomena. If your results did not bear out your assumptions, but you still feel the assumption is correct, you should explain the source of the problem (errors in measurement, calculations, equipment), and outline a plan for redoing the observations. When your experiment bears out your hypothesis, your conclusion should place these results in the context of the large field, and could include suggestions for further research.

Because of the nature of astronomical observations, there are some kinds of data that you should always include for any observing session.

There are several standard forms for making observtions. Among the most popular are those used by the American Association of Amateur Astronomers. I recommend that you download the two observing forms, copy them, and use them when you observe:

Download the form for the Observing Log (PDF).

Download the form for the Sketch Template (PDF).

Term Papers: The Research Proposal

Part of each semester's assignments is a research paper of 4-7 pages (1000 - 1500 words), written as a research proposal on some specific area of astronomy, and due at the same time as your semester examination.

You may use any and all resources at your command, including websites, text, other books, magazine articles, etc. You may spend any amount of time on the report that you wish, and you can work on it before and finish it after the exam if you so choose, but it is usually due at the same time as the semester exam.

TOPIC: You may choose a topic from the current semester's astronomy materials, where you can discuss how it is an example of a class of solar system objects (fall) or stellar or galactic objects (spring); what makes the particular object interesting, and how it might be studied. For example, you could choose planetary atmosphers, a particular moon like Io, or a particular application Roche limit theory (formation of planetary rings around Uranus). You must submit your proposed topic to the teacher and have it approved before continuing your research.

REPORT FORMAT: The report should include the following sections:

From a grading standpoint, I would like you to show me that you understand something about the general characteristics of one of these areas:

You will upload your paper as to the Moodle assignment location by its due date. It must be in acceptable format (Word DOC (not DOCX), RTF, Ascii text (TXT), PDF, or Mac Pages format). If you use another word processor, please check with me before uploading the file; I may not be able to read it.

Mycroft's Sample Research Proposal: Is the Moon made of cheese? (a PDF file)


Planning Observations....

Starry Night will show you the positions of the stars and planets, the sun, the moon and its phases, for a given observing time.

Sky and Telescope and Astronomy Magazine both contain articles on observing techniques for amateur astronomers, general articles on recent discoveries, and monthly star charts with planet locations, lunar phases, meteor showers, comets, and other information. Both magazines maintain webpages as well.

The local newspaper may carry similar information on its weather page.

Current Events

NASA's website carries important information about current manned missions (mostly to the International Space Station) and unmanned missions (Cassini to Saturn, Galileo in orbit around Jupiter, various Mars missions).

The Hubble Telescope site carries the best of the Hubble's pictures, plus extensive information about the latest pictures and their implications.


Astronomy is the most popular of the sciences from the public's point of view: who can resist the pretty pictures? or eclipses? There are more books available on astronomical topics than almost any other science (counting computers and programming as something else entirely!). Consequently, there are many textbooks which range from simpler than the one we are using to much more firmly based in physics and mathematics. When looking at texts, try to find more recent editions, since information and theories in astronomy change rapidly, even at the fundamental level!