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How I Teach - Astronomy

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Associate Professor Veronique Petit shares how she helps students look to the stars for enlightenment

Veronique Petit

Associate Professor Veronique Petit

​​Editor’s note: First-year students, prospective students (and some of their parents) wonder and worry how they will handle the academic transition from high school to college. In a series of stories, UDaily speaks with University of Delaware professors who teach courses commonly taken by students during their first year on campus. The series includes professors who teach biology, writing, business, calculus, political science and sociology, and those stories can be read on the How I Teach website. In this story, Associate Professor Veronique Petit explains her approach to teaching astronomy.

Veronique Petit wants to help her students reach for the stars — while also learning how those stars shape our understanding of the universe.

The associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware teaches a class called “Concepts of the Universe,” and although she knows that the title might sound daunting in its scope, her goal is simply to expose students to the field of astronomy. And the star of that field is, well, the stars.

When Petit introduces her syllabus for the online class to a new group of students, she quotes briefly from the description of PHYS144 in the UD catalog: “Survey of astronomy emphasizing early and modern concepts.”

Then she quickly adds, “Dr. Petit’s more exciting description: At the end of the semester, you will be able to answer two exciting questions: How do we know that there are other planets out there in the Universe? What can gravitational waves tell us about the most bizarre objects in the Universe: black holes?”

The Department of Physics and Astronomy also offers “Introduction to Astronomy,” another popular class but one that — unlike “Concepts of the Universe” — includes a laboratory. Petit, who teaches her course in alternating semesters with Associate Professor Sarah Dodson-Robinson, said astronomy is such a broad field that she and colleagues could teach dozens of introductory courses and still not cover everything.

Petit, whose own research focuses on massive stars and the new and evolving study of those stars’ magnetic fields, aims to lead her students on “a grand tour” to understand the stars. For example, she said, because planets orbit stars, scientists can find planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets, by measuring stars. She also pointed out that intriguing phenomena such as black holes and white dwarfs are formed by the death of stars.

“The discovery of exoplanets has been the biggest discovery in the last 30 years in astronomy,” she said. “What have we learned about these planets, and how did they form? These are the kinds of questions we look at in this class, and I want students to understand that the study of stars links everything.”

The course is taught online, and Petit has structured it to keep students engaged and on track by organizing the lectures, readings, required activities and writing assignments into modules. Each module is designed to be roughly equivalent to the class attendance and homework time that students would spend each week on an in-person class.

With the help of teaching assistant Shaquann Seadrow, a doctoral student, Petit has created five-hour modules or blocks for each week of the class. Students watch her lectures on video and complete reading assignments — “Some people learn better by watching, and some learn better by reading,” Petit says — and earn participation points by answering short essay questions and completing interactive tasks.

The modules cover such topics as the structure of the universe, the activity of our Sun, patterns among stars, neutron stars, black holes and gravitational waves. Activities and assignments labeled “Test Your Understanding” ask students to do such tasks as ranking the size of various celestial objects, showing the relative size of the Earth in proportion to its moon and practicing math skills focused on scientific notation. These concepts are key in the study of astronomy, Petit said, because “it can be hard to wrap your mind around how big and how vast the distances are.”

The module format for these assignments is designed to help students manage their time.

“The blocks are filled with exercises to check their understanding,” Petit said. “Instead of coming to [an in-person] class for a few hours and then doing homework for a few hours each week, we mingle and merge all these aspects into a block that they can complete any time during that week.”

Petit designed the online, asynchronous format in order for the class to be offered to Delaware high school students in the Early College Credit (ECC) Program. That program, which has offered the course since ECC was launched in 2020, gives academically qualified juniors and seniors the opportunity to take certain introductory UD courses alongside regularly admitted University students.

The online format enables participating high school students throughout the state to attend at convenient times without traveling to Newark. Its flexibility also helps full-time UD students to accommodate their other courses and responsibilities such as family or jobs.

Petit said the ECC participation hasn’t affected the course content, since the program’s goal is for eligible high school students to experience a typical, introductory UD class that is academically challenging for all students. She offers guidance on time management and study skills, and she and Seadrow work to be readily accessible to students seeking help, because of the number of first-year students including those in ECC.

Students have described Petit as enthusiastic about her subject matter and committed to helping students learn. The format of “Concepts of the Universe” was well-organized while still providing students with flexibility, they said.

“She's very knowledgeable and passionate about her work, and she is always willing to help a student,” said Pamela Zader, who was a senior in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources during the spring semester of 2023. Zader said she has had a longtime interest in astronomy and especially liked Petit’s focus on the fascinating nature of black holes.

For Emily Cox, a first-year College of Arts and Sciences student, learning about black holes, as well as such phenomena as sunspots and the Northern Lights, made the classwork enjoyable. She said she appreciated the way Petit’s lectures were presented in an understandable way, avoiding what Cox called “textbook speech.”

Petit, she said, “teaches with passion and really gets the students to understand the topic. I would tell [prospective] students … that there are things in this class that you actually learn and want to know more about.”

Hayden Atkinson, a junior physics and astronomy major, took a different class taught by Petit and described it as “the highlight of my semester.”

“She made the material interesting, engaging and easy to grasp,” he said. “I would definitely recommend that newer students take classes taught by her.”

Support for Academic Success

The University of Delaware empowers all Blue Hens with the skills and strategies they need to succeed.

UD students in any major are encouraged to take advantage of a range of peer tutoring services, as well as comprehensive skill-building resources offered by the Office of Academic Enrichment (OAE). Most services are available free of charge. To learn more, visit the OAE website. Students may also utilize the Blue Hen SUCCESS platform to connect with their academic advisor or access additional resources on Advising Central.

For UD’s community of educators, the Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning (CTAL) offers programs, workshops and confidential consultations to support faculty as they develop and achieve their pedagogical goals. UD instructors at every stage of their career are invited to explore online and contact ctal-info@udel.edu.

How I Teach — Series

The How I Teach web​site provides a collection of the stories in this series. ​

Article by Ann Manser Photo courtesy of NASA | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

Published June 05, 2023​

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