MESA 2013 summer school

Examples of teaching innovation

AST 304, Stellar Astrophysics

In response to a need for increased training in computational techniques within the astrophysics major, I developed a “Progressive Computational Project.” Following helpful conversations with Prof. O'Shea and Prof. Cheruvelil (Lyman Briggs), I divided the class into teams of four; these teams were “homogeneous in commitment” but “heterogeneous in knowledge.” The students were surveyed on their time commitment to the project and their prior knowledge of numerical techniques and were grouped accordingly. After each task, the students completed a survey and also ranked their teammates. The students then saw not only how they rated themselves, but also how they were rated by their teammates.

The project was progressive: each new task built on previous work. This encouraged the students to build modular, reusable code. The projects introduced the students to rootfinding and solving ordinary differential equations using Kepler’s equations as an example. The teams then constructed simple models of white dwarf stars and low-mass main-sequence stars and made a prediction for how the stellar main sequence would appear if the weak interaction cross-section were altered.

The development of this project was cited as a reason for my receiving the “Osgood Excellence in Teaching Award”, 2013.