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Mercury magazine

Autumn 2010 - Volume 39, Number 4

Autumn 2010 - Volume 39, Number 4

Table of Contents



[15] Posters from Boulder
The Society’s annual meeting in Boulder this past August brought together the ASP’s Education and Public Outreach component with the tri-annual gathering of Cosmos in the Classroom. In addiition to the usual talks, 120 poster papers were presented. In this issue, 11 are reprinted; here’s an excerpt from one of them.

[38] Astronomy in the News
The spacecraft Rosetta triumphs at asteroid Lutetia, the first potentially habitable exoplanet, and a rare eclipsing pulsar — these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Editorial, Paul Deans
New Ideas

[5] First Word, James G. Manning
Doing the Half-Decadal

[6] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
30 Years Ago: Detection of Other Planetary Systems

[7] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
James Short at 300

[8] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Searching for Solar Siblings

[9] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
Suborbital Planetary Science

[10] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
The Black Hole That Didn't Happen

[11] Education Matters, David Bruning
Do You Have a CAT?

[12] Reaching Out, James Lochner
Stella virumque cano …

[13] Societal Impact, John Blackwell
Universal Scale in Observational Astronomy

[44] Society Scope/ASP Supporters
Board Secretary Retires

[48] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
December's Total Lunar Eclipse

[51] Reflections, William Sheehan

"Extreme" Inquiry-Based Learning: Engaging Non-Science Students with the WOW Factor and Science Portfolios

by David Baker, Physics Department, Austin College, Sherman, TX

One of the greatest challenges we face today as science educators is to engage non-science majors in the scientific process. Unfortunately for many students, science can be dry and boring.

Austin College offers a freshman seminar course in which the instructor serves as the students’ academic mentor for the next four years. Each 20-student section has a different academic topic from the humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences -- our section explores “The Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System.” We present two unique, inquiry-based approaches that stimulate non-science undergraduate students to overcome their fear of science:

1) an engaging, nontraditional course topic with a WOW factor, and
2) Science Portfolios that encourage students to do their own science.

Extreme WOW Factor
Surprisingly, the majority of students in this science class are non-science majors -- the WOW factor draws them in. Rather than a standard tour of the solar system, this course explores the most extreme places, including cool stuff like “The Incredible Shrinking Planet,” “Best Vacuum Cleaners,” “Stinkiest Place,” “Shocking Superbolts,” and “Life in the Dark.” We use a recent popular science book appropriately titled The 50 Most Extreme Places on Our Solar System as the “textbook.”

Each student investigates a specific phenomenon (e.g., climate) and writes a research paper on extreme examples (for instance, the runaway greenhouse of Venus, the climate extremes of Mercury, and the bizarre seasons of Uranus)….

Extreme Science Portfolios
The extreme learning doesn’t stop there. Science Portfolios utilize a true inquiry-based learning approach. Students document their own observations, ask their own scientific questions, develop their own hypotheses, design their own experiments, and evaluate their scientific growth. It is an open-ended exercise with few constraints….

Each student portfolio must contain examples in each of the
following four categories:

  • Observations of Science in Everyday Life
  • Scientific Questions and Hypotheses
  • Use of the Scientific Method in Everyday Life
  • Personal Scientific Growth

The effectiveness of Science Portfolios has been assessed with pre-/post-surveys, focus groups, and the portfolios themselves. The results are impressive. At first, students are hesitant to take scientific risks -- their confidence is low. But as the semester progresses, they develop as scientists and obtain ownership of their learning….

Astronomy in the News
Richest Planetary System Discovered

European Southern Observatory

Astronomers using ESO's world-leading HARPS instrument have discovered a planetary system containing at least five planets, orbiting the Sun-like star HD 10180. The researchers also have tantalizing evidence that two other planets may be present, one of which would have the lowest mass ever found. This would make the system similar to our solar system in terms of the number of planets (seven as compared to the Solar System's eight planets). Furthermore, the team also found evidence that the distances of the planets from their star follow a regular pattern, as also seen in our solar system.

"We have found what is most likely the system with the most planets yet discovered," says Christophe Lovis, lead author of the paper reporting the result. "This remarkable discovery also highlights the fact that we are now entering a new era in exoplanet research: the study of complex planetary systems and not just of individual planets. Studies of planetary motions in the new system reveal complex gravitational interactions between the planets and give us insights into the long-term evolution of the system."

The newly discovered system of planets around HD 10180 is unique in several respects. First of all, with at least five Neptune-like planets lying within a distance equivalent to the orbit of Mars, this system is more populated than our solar system in its inner region, and has many more massive planets there. Furthermore, the system probably has no Jupiter-like gas giant. In addition, all the planets seem to have almost circular orbits.