Explore the Cosmos!

Spring 2016

Julia Won

Schulich Leader at University of Toronto

In just eight months, I have complete my first year of university! Although I plan to specialize in biopsychology and minor in French, I took advantage of elective courses to learn about the diverse and different disciplines offered at UofT. In particular, I absolutely loved astronomy. 
I initially took one introductory astronomy course in first semester, but the course was so interesting that I took two other astronomy classes for second semester. These courses are designed for non-astronomy students to learn about the cosmos in a conceptual setting without overly complicated math or physics problems. One of these courses was actually a seminar where about 20 students had the opportunity to use online telescopes to take pictures of our universe! For the seminar’s final project, I took seven observations in order to illustrate the process of spiral galaxy merges. After this seminar, I truly learned the challenges astronomers face when trying to provide the public with those beautiful pictures of space. 
I also know that I enjoyed these courses so much due to the passionate professors who taught the material, Dr. Bryan Gaensler and Dr. Michael Reid. The professors co-instructed AST101 and AST201 (each course had about 1500 students) while only Dr. Reid taught the seminar. As the school year was coming to an end, I was able to interview the professors about their experiences teaching introductory astronomy courses and how individuals could learn about the field without enrolling into one of its programs. 
Dr. Gaensler moved to Canada from Australia over a year ago and is the director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics as well as the research chair of the department. He shared that teaching non-science students about astronomy is interesting because he gets to share his passion and engage with people with no prior astronomy experience. He also mentioned that it never hurts to have science knowledge, even if your field of study is not science related. So, by teaching a variety of students who study different disciplines, more people get to appreciate STEM subjects. Even though astronomy can be challenging, Dr. Gaensler emphasized that depending how you present it, astronomy is also very fun!
Dr. Reid has been teaching non-science students since he was a grad student and is now an expert in teaching introductory astronomy courses. In addition to being a lecturer for the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, he is also the coordinator of public outreach and education at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. After teaching AST101 and AST201 for about seven years at UofT, he highlighted the importance of revising lectures to make improvements as well as to accommodate the interests of his current students. Dr. Reid mentioned how astronomers being able to explain concepts in understandable language is just as important as scientists solving “complicated” and “intimidating” math problems related to astronomy. With this comment, he explained how these introductory course do not make the content easier, but rather present information in an approachable way for non-science students while still maintaining the richness and accuracy of astronomy. 
The professors also shared ways for the general public to get involved with astronomy. Dr. Gaensler referred to a citizen science project website called, Zooniverse, where anyone with Internet access can contribute to scientific research. This crowdsourcing web portal shows users a series of observations, and they use their best judgement to see if it fits the requirements of the study. For example, let us image that a particular research project may have collected many pictures of stars, but wanted to pick out a specific kind from the data. Since there are so many images to go through, a research team may decide to ask the public for help through Zooniverse. The users, who may or may not have any scientific background, give their input as to whether or not a particular star image is indeed the specific category the researchers wish to study. As more users provide their input, the researchers are able to narrow down their search. Another interesting aspect of Zooniverse is the fact that the research projects come from a variety of fields outside of astronomy, such as biology, climate science, and even humanities.
Dr. Reid shared how a university’s astronomy department may have events open to the public. At UofT, public outreach members of the department organize planetarium shows, telescope observation nights, conferences, collaborations with the ROM and Ontario Science Centre and much more. These events are listed at www.universe.utoronto.ca. There is also the option to subscribe to the website’s mailing list in order to receive updated notifications about such events. 
There are so many ways for us to learn about the universe, so I hope you too will find opportunities to explore the cosmos!