Syllabus for Astro 103

Some Things you Need to Know Fall 2012

Course Content and Learning Goals

Course Policies and Grading

Deadlines and Exams

Enrollment validation process and starting the course

Contact Information and Where to Get Help


Astro 103 is a fully web-based course on astronomy, using material from and Blackboard There is no textbook to buy.

On or before the first day of classes, students will be enrolled into the course on Blackboard; you should then find Astro 103 on your Blackboard list of courses when you log in at Blackboard.

The course is self-paced, with some limits. This means that you will be mostly working on your own, at your own time, from any location in the world with internet access, and (within reason) at your own pace.  There are just three (3) hard deadlines: One for taking the midterm exam, one for finishing all units, and one for taking the final exam.

There is no meeting time or place.  You can take this course from anywhere; we have had students from overseas.  You may be able to finish the course in a few weeks, or you may find you need to work steadily over the semester to master the materials.  We provide as much flexibility as we can within the constraints of the university semester system and the time available to the grader to keep up with your submissions. As part of your enrollment validation process you will complete a plan for how you will be pacing yourself.

Is this the right astronomy course for you?

Course Content and Learning Goals

Evening Star covers some of what you need to know to plan exploration of the Solar System. We begin with a description of how the planets appear in our sky, and a brief summary of how people figured out that Earth and the other planets go around the Sun. Then we cover elements of how orbits work, and the steps to get a spacecraft from Earth to Mars.

The learning goals for the course include:

1. By the end, you should be able to explain to someone else what goes into planning a trip to another planet. You should also be able to relate the apparent motions of planets among the stars, and the appearance of Venus in a telescope, to the arrangement of the solar system. You should have an understanding of the different ideas people have had about the arrangement of bodies in the solar system, and what kinds of evidence support our current view.

Some of the material in Astro 102 and Astro 103 is also taught in Astro 120; therefore, you can count at most one of these courses if you also take 120. 

Very little of the material in Astro 102, 103 (and also in Astro 120) concerns such popular topics as constellation names and legends; there is no unit on this for 103, and one optional unit on constellations (no legends) in 102.  In 103, the focus is on studying the motions of the planets in the solar system and also some basic notions we need to use to plan a trip to another planet.

Course Policies and Grading

Course policies

Taking quizzes and submitting essay answers

Taking quizzes

Take the quiz first. It will be instantly graded. Whether or not you missed any questions, you may find it helpful to read through our comments on the quiz questions before trying the essay.

All quizzes are closed book: No surfing the web or use of Polaris during the test.   Also, obviously, no collaboration on quizzes!

Essay Questions

The essay is given at the end of the unit on Polaris, to allow you some time to think about it before writing your answer. Read it, think about it, reread the unit or do some web-surfing until you feel you understand what the question is asking, and know what you want to say in your answer.

Then: Close all windows on your computer, put your notes and books away, sit down in front of a blank screen, and write your essay. I suggest writing it in your favorite word-processor; you can paste it into the Blackboard essay blank later, and this way you have a copy if somehow the transfer doesn't work. DO NOT copy anything written by someone else when you write your essay; the best way to make sure that you don't is to close all other files while you are writing. NOTE: There are some issues with Blackboard and MS Word - see this link.

If you find that you were not quite as ready as you thought: Close your draft essay and go back to studying the question. When you again feel ready, close all other windows and go back to writing.

How long should the essay be? Most perfect scores are given for an answer with three to seven clear sentences (depending on the question). That is one longish paragraph or a few short bullet points. A special request from your grader: Please answer the essays with complete sentences and in a manner that clearly indicates which part of the question you are answering.

Garbage policy: If you have the correct answer but you also have some incorrect information, we will take points off for the added "garbage". Answer the question but don't add unnecessary words or ideas!

Discussion points

We will keep a running total for your discussion contributions. We will log on every few days, read what you have posted, and give credit for worthy postings - 1 point per unit = 1 point per forum. As we read them, we may answer a question or comment either to you alone or by posting a reply. We will also be removing any postings that come too close to asking for or giving the answer to an essay question or that reveal something from a quiz. Please note that not everyone will be on the same schedule so a quiz that is in your past is likely in someone else's future!

The deadline for posting to the discussion to count for points will be the same as the soft deadline for the relevant unit. Thus, for example, to get credit for your postings for units 0, 1, and 2 you will need to post these contributions by midnight, September 16.

About getting points for the discussion contributions.

Accommodating disabilities

Insofar as possible, we have designed the course to be accessible.   There are some limits inherent in the material; for example, diagrams and pictures are generally part of the presentation.  If you encounter any difficulty because of a disability, please contact us and we will see whether we can work around it.  Also, if you need special conditions for exams, such as more time, or a quiet place, that can be accommodated but most easily if you contact us early in the term.

Academic dishonesty

We have an honor system for the units -- we trust you to follow the above constraints.  If we detect a problem -- e.g. duplicate or borrowed answers -- we will follow the usual university procedures.


Required elements - Quizzes, Essays, two exams, and participation in discussion on Blackboard

You are required to complete all eight units, 0 through 7.  For each unit you will answer questions on an instantly-graded quiz and then you will submit a short essay answer to one question for each unit.  You are also expected to use the Discussion feature on Blackboard to discuss the ideas of the course with your class-mates, by posing questions, answering questions, or bringing in a useful illustration of some point.

Each of units 0-6 is worth 15 points - 10 for the quiz and 5 for the essay - if completed on schedule. Unit 7 is worth 20 points, because its essay is a 10-pointer. For the eight units that means 125 points are possible. Add to that the midterm (30 points) and the final (40 points) and discussion points (up to 9) and you have a perfect score = 204.

There are two proctored exams during the semester: The midterm, worth 30 points, offered during the 5th week, with a makeup exam available in the 7th week, and the final, offered during finals week. If you are an off-campus student away from Ames, you will be expected to find a proctor by the fourth week so that the midterm can be set up in good time. NOTE: Off-campus means geographically distant: your body is not in Ames nor near enough for you to come to campus to take the test, not whether you are signed up for 102 or 102XW. If you are off-campus in this sense, please read (now) About proctored exams.

Final grades

The course is graded A, B, C, D, F (no +/-).  For an A you will need 150 points; for a B, 130; for a C, 110; and for a D, 90.  All grades are based on SCORES, not percentages, and we don't care where you get your points as long as you get enough of them. It is possible to get 150 points and thus an A grade without taking the final.

150 points = A

130 points = B

110 points = C

90 points = D


Course Deadlines and Exams

The course will begin on Monday, August 20, 2012.  That is when we start grading essays and when you will see the course on Blackboard.  You are, of course, welcome to start studying the material on the Polaris web site any time.

We have prepared a course calendar in .pdf format, convenient to print and post over your desk:Course Calendar.

There are two deadlines that you really do not want to miss.

The first is a deadline to qualify for the midterm: The first 3 units need to be done by the end of the fourth week, that is, by midnight on Sunday, September 16. What we mean by "done" in this case is that you must have completed all three units and achieved a total of 30 points. Note: The makeup midterm, 2 weeks later, is meant for students who are unable to meet this deadline, usually for reasons beyond their control.

The second is that all units must be complete by Sunday evening December 2 at 11:59 PM.  We will grade everything that comes in by this deadline, but there will be no hand-grading of anything that comes in later. Please note that this is at the end of the 14th week of the semester, one week before the official Exam week. Put it on your calendar now so you don't miss this very important deadline!

The final exam dates are also firm, and usually start during deadweek = week 15 and extend into exam week.

The other, softer deadlines indicate the pace you need to keep to work through the course by the end of the semester.  Your reward for meeting these is a guaranteed second chance on each essay and points for dicussion contributions. More than half of the students taking this course find the second chance on essaysto be very helpful, even essential. The first "soft deadline" is for completion of the first three units and comes 4 weeks from the start of classes. After that, there is a soft deadline every other week until the final "hard deadline".

The midterm and final exams are similar to the quizzes, but longer. The midterm is worth 30 points and the final is worth 40 points. The midterm covers the contents of units 0, 1, and 2. The final is comprehensive. Please note: When you have taken a quiz, you can see your answers and the correct answers and often some additional feedback. However, for the midterm and final we do NOT provide this information. The quizzes are for learning and assessing; the midterm and final are only for assessing what you have learned.

The midterm and final exams are proctored exams. If you are on-campus, you will take these at 60 Carver. If you are located away from Ames, we will work with you to arrange proctoring.

Enrollment validation process and Starting the Course.

In order to validate your enrollment (and thus not be dropped from the course) you need to complete the following steps within one week of (a) the start of the term or (b) the date you added the class, whichever is later. Note that you will not see any quizzes or essays until you have completed this process!

1. Complete the Contract/Plan for 103. Your score on this tells us you have completed the task; it does not enter into your grade. However, you cannot proceed to Unit 1 until you have completed the Contract and the Pretest.

2. Take the pretest on Blackboard. (This test is NOT used in determining your grade; it provides you with some information to use in planning your approach to the course.) Once you have done this, you should see the essays and quizzes for Units 0, 1, and 2 available to complete.

3. Contribute to the first discussion topic (= who are you?). This does give you 1 point for discussion.

The Pretest is meant entirely to give you a feeling for what you already know and thus for how quickly you may be able to complete the material.  It is diagnostic only, and does not count towards your grade in any way.  If you have a high score (>6) on the pretest, perhaps you might consider blazing through the course before the semester gets too busy.  If you have a low score (<4) on the pretest, we strongly urge you to start immediately working through the units, so you have plenty of time to digest the ideas and to get any help you may need.

Once you have taken the pre-test and completed the Contract/Plan, you will have access to units 0, 1, and 2.  You will need a total of 30 points (out of 45 possible) on these three units in order to proceed to unit 3 and in order to take the midterm.  The reason for this is that you need to know the material in 0 through 2 in order to understand the later units, and this way we can help you catch up early in the course rather than perhaps facing a disaster at the end.  To get 30 points you would need a perfect score on all 3 quizzes or, more usually, scores averaging at least 6 or 7 with essays getting 4 or 3 points.  This is where the second chance on an essay can really make a big difference.  Also, if your score on Quiz 1, 2 or 3 is below 5 you may want to pause and review before continuing, and perhaps contact us if you are still confused. There are things we can do to help you, but these are easier the earlier in the course you ask for help.

Do not overlook the activities that precede each unit.  They are intended to prepare you for the unit and also, in some cases, to give you a tool to use in studying the unit.  Particularly if your score on the pretest is less than 6 or so, it would be wise for you to carry out the relevant activity before each unit.

Contact information and where to get help

Professor for the course is Dr. Lee Anne Willson,,  She developed the Polaris site and the course, and she takes care of proctoring arrangements and special problems, but most of the day-to-day issues are handled by the instructor.

TA/Grader for the course will be Geoff Root, He will do most of the grading of essays.

Department contact person for the course is Deb Schmidt, She is authorized to sign drop slips for us.

Who does what?

The Instructor/grader will be grading your essays, answering questions, looking over the discussion, and watching for problems that may need attention.

The professor will handle all aspects of proctored exams, take care of any unusual problems that arise, and correct any problems or errors found in Blackboard or the Polaris site. She works with the grader to establish uniform standards for essay grading and will give a second opinion on essays that are difficult to score. She also sets up the course at the beginning of the semester and processes grades at the end. If you have a problem that is not resolved by discussion with the graders, the professor will help you to find a resolution.

Since this is a web-based course, we expect that most of our contact with most of you will be by electronic means. To make sure we can archive your messages appropriately, please use the Email/message feature on Blackboard. If the issue is urgent, **copy** the message into an Emergency Email and send that as well. Please do not just email us, inside or outside of Blackboard, as messages that are sent that way may easily drown in our regular email inboxes.

The department contact person is the coursework secretary for the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Deb Schmidt. She can be found in Room 12 Physics during normal working hours; her phone number is 515 294 4936. She can usually locate the professor or the grader. She is also generally given authority to sign drop slips and may, in individual cases pre-authorized by the professor, sign add slips or other paperwork.

On-line help features and resources

The Polaris web site has a couple of features meant to provide you with automated help.  One of these is the help layer reached by clicking on Dick and Jane icons or no-frill help.  Another is the vocabulary list, organized so that when you look up one word, other words that are closely related are located near it in the list.  So if you look up latitude you will find that longitude is listed right next to it. 

Another online source of help is the class discussion.  Here, you can post questions or read what others have posted.  Sometimes, a classmate will answer your questions; sometimes, one of us will do so. If you have a question that is very specific to a quiz or essay, however, it may be better to ask us by Email/message rather than posting something that might compromise one of our assessments.

There is also detailed feedback on the first three quizzes helping you to understand the correct answers and how they fit in.  Do study these as you go along; they will make it all much easier.

You are welcome to send us your questionsPlease use the Contact the Instructor system in Blackboard for all communications with your instructors. If we think the question is of general interest, we may post it anonymously on the discussion; otherwise, we will simply reply.  Usually you will hear back within a day or two. If you send a message and do not get a response within 24 hours, please send a copy to Emergency/Email; if you still get no response, call or email the coursework secretary, Deb Schmidt,, and explain that you are trying to reach the staff for Astro 103.  This should only be necessary if we both get very sick at the same time or some other disaster strikes!

Many websites have complementary presentations on one or more of the ideas we are covering.  If you find a site that is helpful, do let us know, and you may wish to post this information on the discussion.  We will try to check all sites brought to our attention for accuracy and relevance, and will report if we find a site that is inaccurate or out of date.

There are a number of planetarium software programs available for free or for a fee.  We use two here:  The (somewhat expensive) Voyager program for Macs is on the computers in the MacLab (B49), and the ISU planetarium uses the open-source (free) program Stellarium.  These programs can show you what happens during a day or week or year and can do this from different points of view -- from different locations on Earth as well as views from places other than Earth. 

Additional places to get help if you are on-campus

If you are an on-campus student, you are welcome to visit the astronomy help-room in B49 Physics. Hours for this should be posted during the second week of classes. The TAs and professors who work in the help-room are qualified to assist students in Astro 102, 103, 120, 125L, 150, and often higher level courses as well.

Open hours for B49 Physics will also be announced during the second week. On the computers in B49 we have two sky simulation or "planetarium" programs available; these may be used to simulate what you would see in the sky and this may help you to visualize what we are talking about.

You are also welcome to use the computers in this room to work on your Blackboard quizzes and essays, close to where help is available; the room doubles as a general-access mac computer lab. 

Some FAQs not covered above.

Do I need a textbook? If I want a book, what should I buy?

You don't need a book; the material is presented on

If you want a book: Check out the book that is being used for Astro 120. Most of what is in 103 is covered in these books. Otherwise, here are a few suggestions - take a look at some of these at the U. Library before making your choice:

Fraknoi, Morrison and Wolff, Voyages to the Planets

John D. Fix, Astronomy: Journey to the Cosmic Frontier. You can get this with the Starry Night Pro software; Starry Night is also available as a download from

A free planetarium software package is the Stellarium program.

Not exactly a textbook, but something that you may find both helpful and entertaining: Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" by Philip C. Plait. We find that the hardest units for students are the ones where common incorrect ideas get in the way of understanding what we are trying to explain, and several of those common incorrect ideas are discussed in this short, inexpensive (about $10) paperback (or Kindle) book. If you had a low score on the pretest, perhaps this book will help you to understand how popular ideas and phrases may have given you some wrong impressions.

An old but very appropriate companion to Astro 102 and 103 is H. A. Rey's The Stars: A New Way to See Them. This is also available as a paperback for about $10 (newly printed).

Why can't I see the next unit on Blackboard?

Most often people ask this because either (a) they can only see the pretest, not units 0-7; or (b) they can see units 0, 1, and 2 but not unit 3. In this case, the answer is: You can't see units 0-2 until you have completed the pretest and the contract; you can't see unit 3 until you have accumulated 30 points in units 0-2.

A common reason for not seeing later units is having paging preferences set to show a short page.

I've done the first 3 units and I don't have 30 points. Help!

Email/message the grader. We have one or two things we can do to help you get past this first hurdle. Remember, too, that you can submit your essays a second time if you get them in early enough in the term; do allow two days for them to be graded.

I made a typo in my answer on a quiz and the computer marked it wrong. Is there anything you can do?

Please, please, please watch your spelling! Yes, we can override the computer score if you send us an email telling us which question on which quiz, what you wrote vs. what you intended to write. We will not automatically give credit - for some questions spelling is important or your error may make the answer ambiguous - but most of this time we will give you the point if the problem is a simple typo or an extra word.

I found an error / a broken link / a problem with Polaris or the Blackboard course.

Send us an Email/Message. If you are the first to report a problem, we will give you an extra-credit point. If you are not the first, it will be 1/2 point until the problem is fixed and 0 points if you report it after we fix it. However, there is no extra credit if you post it on the discussion and do not email us about it.