“As students study the Solar System, they learn the value of the Earth. It is the only planet known to support life. Learning about the Solar System should give students a feeling of responsibility to care for the Earth,” explains Professor Rebecca Ericson.

Professor Ericson has lofty goals for students in ASTR 111 Introductory Astronomy: The Solar System, a general education course at Mason. A central goal is that they develop an ability to apply scientific knowledge and reasoning to personal, professional, and public decision-making, especially decisions affecting the well-being of our unique planet.

Dr. Rebecca Ericson provides an overview of
Astronomy 111 in this course introduction video
(and the PDF movie transcript).

To achieve these goals, Professor Ericson recognizes that students cannot just sit in a lecture. Instead, they need to be active learners, engaging with course content through activities which promote scientific inquiry, discussion about scientific procedures, and analysis of scientific observations and theories.

Backward design approach was used to develop active learning opportunities which would lead students to achieve the pre-established goals. The National Science Teachers Association explains that “with this approach, instead of moving linearly through a series of labs and activities, conscious effort is made to emphasize particular skills and knowledge needed to meet specific learning goals” [1].

Throughout the semester, students perform an at home experiment or assessment every week. They are encouraged to involve family and friends in their home experiments whenever possible because it builds understanding to explain what is happening in the experiment and why. With “sweet” labs such as measuring the speed of light with chocolate chips and a microware, family and friends are generally easily enticed to participate.

Students also actively engage with course material through discussions with classmates. For example, they discuss Olber’s paradox, the argument that if the universe is static and filled with an infinite number of stars, the sky should not be dark at night. The fact that the sky is dark is evidence for an expanding universe with a definite starting point.

At the end of the semester, students perform peer reviews on individual projects, another key element of active learning. As recent research noted, “writing a peer review involves cognitive processes that encourage deep learning” [2].

In addition to the ASTR 111 fully online section, Professor Ericson, Professor Michael Summers, the Director of the School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences (SPACS), and other SPACS faculty will be teaching a hybrid section combining ASTR 111 and ASTR 112. This means that students now have four different pathways to complete ASTR 111 and ASTR 112 – both online, both face-to-face, one online and one face-to-face, or the hybrid course.


[1] Hendrickson, Sher (2006). Backward approach to inquiry. National Teachers Association: Science Scope, 30-33.
[2] Wessa, P., & De Rycker, A. (2010). Reviewing peer reviews – A rule-based approach. International Conference on E-Learning, 408-418.