AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

Summer 2004 Executive Officer's Report

Bernard Khoury
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 2

Crossover Teaching of Astronomy and Physics in Two-Year Colleges

One of AAPT’s strategic priorities deals with the topic of crossover teachers, generally meaning those high school teachers with training outside of physics who find themselves teaching physics. On occasion, another crossover teaching question is posed to AAPT, recently appearing in the context of accreditation reviews of two-year colleges.

How qualified is a well-trained physics teacher to teach an introductory astronomy course, and conversely how qualified is a well-trained astronomy teacher to teach an introductory physics course? Since these questions have arisen several times in the last few months, and are likely to continue to arise, let me address some of the issues.

First for the specific questions, “Does a degree in physics provide adequate subject matter knowledge to enable a person to teach introductory astronomy?” and “Does a degree in astronomy provide adequate subject matter knowledge to enable a person to teach introductory physics?” The answer to each of these questions is certainly, “Yes.”

The introductory astronomy course is a “science literacy” course, designed to present a broad background in the subject typically to non-science-oriented students and not for future astronomy “majors.” There are very few astronomy majors at the undergraduate level. Most schools that prepare students for graduate degrees in astronomy do so through physics major programs. Over half of the higher education teachers of astronomy have physics as their highest degree.

Historically and practically, astronomy is a branch of physics. To effectively teach introductory astronomy requires a knowledge of kinematics and dynamics, gravitational interactions, satellite motion, Newton’s laws, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, mirrors and lenses, wave phenomena, electromagnetic radiation, and so on—all topics included in a physics teacher’s background. Numerous universities have a unified department of physics and astronomy testifying to the strong overlap, especially at the undergraduate level, in the curriculum and skills required in the two areas. In fact, several prominent universities list introductory astronomy courses with a physics prefix. Any physics teacher, especially one with graduate-level physics courses and an interest in astronomy, has the academic preparation to teach an introductory astronomy course.

Now for the obverse issue, that of the qualifications of an astronomy-trained person to teach introductory physics. As suggested in the prior discussion, the fundamental training and education of an astronomer is almost indistinguishable from that of a physicist. In their undergraduate training, both take essentially the same sequence of courses with variances occurring primarily in a couple of the upper division courses. Any astronomy teacher, especially one with graduate-level astronomy courses and an interest in physics, has the academic preparation to teach introductory physics.

While the AAPT does not accredit programs or certify teachers in physics or in astronomy (and we have no plans to do so), we do have many astronomy teachers in the organization and committees that deal with astronomy education in two-year colleges. Members of our community with long experiences in teaching physics and teaching astronomy have no doubt that a physics degree and experience as a physics teacher qualify a person to teach introductory astronomy and that an astronomy degree and experience as an astronomy teacher qualify a person to teach introductory physics.