Introducing the McCrady & Rice Labs: Concept-Oriented Collaborative Activities for Astronomy 101

by Guest on June 13, 2016

Emily Rice is an assistant professor at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island, a resident research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, and co-PI of the BDNYC research group. She is also co-founder of the STARtorialist astronomy fashion blog and co-organizes Astronomy on Tap events in New York City.
Nate McCrady is an associate professor at the University of Montana and co-PI on the MINERVA exoplanet observatory.

We have published a suite of 40 lab-style activities covering the full range of Astro 101 topics. The McCrady and Rice Astronomy Labs are concept oriented, guiding students through investigations of fundamental concepts by a progression of demonstrations and questions. (This is intentionally different from traditional goal-oriented science labs, where students follow instructions to complete a tedious series of tasks and calculations, often resulting in frustrated students and bored instructors.) In our labs, students are given the opportunity to examine, interact, and experiment with phenomena that are integral to astronomy while developing their scientific process skills. We designed them for lab courses, but most of the activities are easily adaptable for use in lecture-style classes.

The authors at AAS 223 The authors at AAS 223

Backstory and Disclosure

We started working together at UCLA in 2005, when Nate was an NSF postdoctoral fellow and Emily was a graduate student. Frustrated with the functional but inconsistent labs in use at the time (sound familiar?), we wrote nine new labs for the Astro 101 course there, and, most importantly, workshopped them over several quarters with the support of faculty and graduate teaching assistants. Pearson (publishers of the Cosmic Perspective, Astronomy Today, and MasteringAstronomy) heard about the UCLA lab course, and approached Nate about publishing the labs. We worked together to draft a prospectus, identify concept goals, and write a more-encompassing collection of 40 activities. In January 2014 the labs were printed in Instructor’s Review Copies and made available in the Pearson Custom Library. While the formal publication process was a lot of extra work compared to just putting the labs on a website, instructors benefit from a more polished, flexible product and an assurance of continued availability and we receive royalties based on sales.

Flexibility and Ease of Implementation

The McCrady and Rice Astronomy Labs are designed for a typical Astro 101 course for non-science majors. At most, some labs require high school algebra. The conceptual background required for each lab are foundational topics in Astro 101 and are explicitly stated in the Instructor’s Notes. The labs use a conversational, Socratic approach and emphasize simple, inexpensive equipment, most of which is sourced on our website.

The labs cover topics of quantitative reasoning (math skills in astronomy contexts), Earth’s perspective (e.g., Moon phases, seasons, night sky observations), tools for astronomical observations (e.g., light, spectra), Solar System & exoplanets (e.g., Sun, planets, gravity, exoplanet detection) stars (e.g., H-R diagram, nuclear fusion, pulsars), galaxies (e.g., star formation, dark matter, galaxy evolution), and cosmology (e.g., Hubble Law, dark energy, CMBR, and Big Bang nucleosynthesis), with 4–7 labs in each topic. The number and variety of labs allows instructors to use these labs for many variations on the Astro 101 course, including courses that focus on the Solar System or Life in the Universe, for example. We offer suggested lab sequences for several types of courses.

We designed the labs to be used in a lab section (with ~1.5 to 2 hours of class time), but most of the labs can be readily adapted as tutorials for a lecture-based class. Twenty-nine of the labs require no equipment, and four more use only (Flash-based) PhET interactive simulations. Often, the first and/or last page of a lab can be assigned as a pre-lab or homework before/after class. The Learning Objectives associated with each lab can be adapted to short-answer exam questions for straightforward assessment.

Adopting for your Course

You can preview the labs in full on the Pearson Custom Library (PCL) once you have registered for a free account, which requires entering your name, email, and school information as well as creating a username and password. You can then select from the labs (preview all labs with this link) at a cost of $2.50 per lab to the bookstore, for a typical cost of ~$25-30 per student per semester. You can also combine McCrady and Rice Astronomy Labs with other Pearson materials as well as upload your own content. Contact your Pearson sales representative for a physical review copy of the McCrady and Rice Astronomy Labs or for help with PCL.


Support for Instructors

The labs website we created features the annotated Table of Contents with lab titles and brief descriptions, sequences for example courses, sources for equipment, instructor testimonials, and corrections. Extensive Instructor’s Notes, with a comprehensive introduction and narrative guide to each lab, are available from Pearson.

We’re happy to answer any questions you have about the labs or our publishing experience in the comments below. We’re also available on Twitter (@natemccrady, @emilylurice) and via this contact form.

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