Syllabus: Seeing Stars

By Kate Pipkin

Creative analogies and impromptu conversations—those are two strategies Professor Adam Riess uses to keep his undergraduate students engaged. Oh yes, and the fact that Riess is a Nobel laureate also keeps students flocking to his course: Stars and the Universe (Great Discoveries in Astronomy and Astrophysics).

Not every Nobel laureate chooses to teach an entry-level science course that includes freshmen, but Riess says not only does it keep him “grounded,” but it makes him better at speaking about his own complex research. Riess received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for providing evidence that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating.

students stargazing on rooftop

Students taking the course Stars and the Universe use telescopes to observe the night sky from the top of the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, on the Homewood campus.

“So many professors forget what it was like not to know,” he says. “It’s crucial for all scientists to be able to communicate why you’re doing what you’re doing to people other than your colleagues.”

Riess teaches the course every year to between 80 and 100 students from a variety of science and non-science disciplines, and his primary goal is to “make them curious.”

“I want them to understand that if they follow their curiosity, then they will develop new knowledge,” he says.

Riess keeps students engaged in a number of ways using analogies and examples (devising a math problem based on the 2016 blizzard to explain magnitude and the direction of vectors) and encouraging class participation by pitching mini-Milky Way candy bars to those who answer questions and take part in the discussion.

“Adam Riess is so knowledgeable about a wide range of topics,” says freshman Agustina Quesada, “and he always accepts random questions from students at the beginning of class, which is a unique approach to starting a class and getting us to participate and actively learn.”

The course begins with ancient cosmology and an examination of early concepts of the Universe and ultimately moves into sessions on dark matter, dark energy, and the cosmic microwave background. Students also log in hours on the roof of the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, using telescopes to study the sky and observe some of what they have learned about in class.