AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

AAPT Board Endorsed Position Supporting Physics Teachers as Instructors in Astronomy Courses

“Does a degree in physics qualify a person to teach introductory astronomy at the collegiate level?” The answer to this question is an emphatic “Yes.”

There have been repeated questions from college accrediting agencies and some administrators regarding whether someone who is qualified to teach physics courses would be qualified to teach introductory astronomy courses.  The American Association of Physics Teachers believes that the answer is “yes” that physics teachers would be qualified to teach introductory astronomy.  This response is based on the nature of the curriculum in the two fields of physics and astronomy; it is based on common practice regarding how introductory astronomy is offered across the United States; and it is based on the role of the introductory astronomy class in the college curriculum.

The introductory astronomy course at the college-level is usually a “science literacy” course, often fulfilling the “general education” requirements in science. As such, these courses include aspects dealing with the experimental nature of science and topics such as how astronomy is studied and how discoveries are made. The astronomy content for these courses usually includes a broad background to the subject aimed mostly at non-science oriented students as the target audience.

In fact, many schools offer only introductory courses in astronomy because very few institutions offer astronomy as a major at the undergraduate level. Those students who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in astronomy prepare themselves for that program by completing a physics major. This is the typical approach used by departments across the nation. As further evidence, consider that about 190,000 students take introductory astronomy in higher education institutions across the U.S. each year.1 About 140,000, or around 73%, were enrolled in courses taught in departments that offered degrees in physics, but not in astronomy.2 Since these are physics departments that do not offer astronomy degrees, one could assume that the faculty members who taught most of these students held degrees in physics, and not in astronomy3 Thus, nationally, a majority of faculty members teaching astronomy in higher education have physics as their highest degree.

Historically and practically, astronomy and physics have matured collaboratively.  Each discipline has been enriched by the developments in the other field. Specifically, to effectively teach introductory astronomy requires a knowledge of basic physics concepts including kinematics and dynamics, gravitational interactions, satellite motion, Newton’s Laws, Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion, mirrors and lenses (for telescopes), wave phenomena, electromagnetic radiation, etc. These are all topics that are included as part of a physics major and are expected as part of a physics instructor’s background. Numerous universities have a unified department of physics and astronomy, testifying again to the strong content overlap, especially at the undergraduate level. In fact, several prominent universities list introductory astronomy courses with a physics prefix, amplifying the content connection.

Many physics instructors have the academic preparation to teach an introductory physics course. While specific coursework or workshop experiences in astronomy, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, are beneficial to teaching these courses; we believe that  practical experience in and an enthusiasm for astronomy are sufficient for teaching an introductory astronomy course. These experiences could come from attending workshops sponsored by professional organizations or participating in research as an amateur or non-professional astronomer.  Therefore, it is important to include a review of the larger interests of potential introductory astronomy course faculty to identify additional relevant qualifications.

A previous AAPT Executive Officer in an article in 2004 about “Crossover Teaching of Astronomy and Physics in Two- Year Colleges”4 publicly emphasized the point that physics instructors are qualified to teach introductory astronomy. Much of this letter reiterates the points made in this public statement.

While AAPT does not accredit programs or certify instructors in physics, we do have many astronomy instructors as members in the organization, and we have a committee that deals with astronomy education at all levels, including at two-year colleges.5 As such, we have hosted a number of conferences and workshops that provide professional development for physics faculty members who teach astronomy. These communities, made up of experienced teachers in physics and astronomy, agree that a physics degree and experience as a physics instructor qualifies an individual to teach introductory astronomy. Specifically the AAPT Space Science Committee has made the following recommendations:

That accrediting agencies take a holistic approach in evaluating a faculty member’s credentials for teaching introductory astronomy. That is, to look at the candidate’s broad course preparation in physics, astronomy and other relevant sciences. This would include considering past graduate level physical science courses in physics, astronomy, astrophysics, chemistry, geology, planetary sciences, atmospheric sciences, geophysics, astrobiology, and geosciences since as all of these subject areas are relevant to introductory astronomy. Also accrediting agencies should consider the candidate’s experiences working in a planetarium or with an organization such as the American Association of Variable Star Observers, as providing appropriate background to teach introductory astronomy.

Likewise, faculty members with degree(s) in astronomy are highly qualified to teach physics courses. Many astronomy graduate degree holders have undergraduate degrees in physics or have taken many of the foundational courses in physics. Since much of the science of astronomy is based on physics principles, faculty members with degree(s) in astronomy should be likewise permitted to teach physics courses.

Therefore, the AAPT Executive Board encourages institutions of higher education (including two-year colleges, community colleges, and smaller four-year colleges and universities as well as larger colleges and universities) and accrediting organizations to accept qualifications as a physics faculty member to be sufficient to teach introductory astronomy courses.

References:

  1. Data for the 2009-10 academic year excluding two-year colleges – see the “AIP Focus On Astronomy Enrollments and Degrees” published by the American Institute of Physics available at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/astro2010.pdf
  2. See Table 1 in citation 1
  3. These numbers are similar to those published by Andrew Fraknoi of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific that include two-year colleges. See http://scitation.aip.org/journals/doc/AERSCZ-ft/vol_1/iss_1/121_1.html
  4. Available at http://www.aapt.org/aboutaapt/reports/eo-summer04.cfm
  5. See http://www.aapt.org/aboutaapt/organization/astronomy.cfm for more information about the Committee on Space Science and Astronomy