Brief tale of woe

My department at a small public university in the US has decided to begin offering a descriptive astronomy general education course for the first time in a couple of decades and we have no institutional memory of how it was done before nor anyone on staff who's taught such a beast.

And I've been tapped to teach it.


It's to be a one-semester course with three hours a week of classroom instruction and a three hour lab scheduled late enough that we'll have some dark sky early in the semester and more as the year goes on (schedule has it in Fall Semester). Expected enrollment in the neighborhood of 20 to 30. I won't have a teaching assistant unless I can rope a physics major into doing it somehow (we're an all undergrad department).

As a "general education" course mine will mostly attract students majoring in non-science subjects, biological science or human science. The students will have had enough math to know (in principle) how to isolate any variable in, say, the law of universal gravitation but many won't remember at first and some will resist; many will have chosen this class in an effort to avoid 'hard' classes like our gen ed chemistry, physics, or geology courses.

I'm looking of a textbook that touches on things like

  • Observational coordinate systems, familiarization with the night sky (constellations, I suppose), finding things
  • The Earth moon system, phases, eclipses, maybe even tides
  • Kepler's laws
  • The planets, moons and other bits and pieces in the solar system
  • The sun in particular and stars in general; including the birth, evolution and death of stars in a low math way
  • Some observational stuff; parallax, standard candles, HR diagram ...
  • A unit or integrated material on the planetary missions would be nice
  • Larger scale structure of the universe; a cosmology unit wouldn't be out of place; how much dark matter (or worse dark energy) can actually be done?
  • A unit on extra-solar planet hunting would be nice.
  • A unit on other wavelengths?
  • What else goes into a course like this?

Please include some detail on what is good about suggested texts and how well it matches with the course I've got to teach. What does it offer that's special?

Random detail

At this point we own a 8" scope (reflector) with a axial mount and motor drive but no automated pointing and two pairs of decent binoculars (I can probably buy more binoculars, but additional scopes are probably out of budget for this).

It's been about 20 years since I pointed a scope up with my own hands, and my only "real" astronomical experience was doing some programming for a CCD backed 14" remote-operated scope in the early 90s (we even managed to track a MACHO light curve and agree with the big boys, woo hoo science!).

The department head thinks that every gen. ed. course in our department should cover the scientific method and some thermodynamics which I think we can fit in.

I sincerely intend to include at least one field trip out to dark sky to just look up with adapted eyes. It's been too long...

The only question I could find on meta suggested that a sufficiently focused recommendation question would be accepted. If this is a no go, perhaps I'll pop into chat at some point.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The astronomer Dr. David Butler has made a free video "book" which "zooms out". It is structured according to distances. It is another way to organize a course than the traditional one. Maybe parts of one or two of his videos you could use to take your otherwise moderately interested students' breath away. His youtube. Astronomy is developing very fast now, on all scales, textbooks get old very quickly. A historic approach is safer, but half another subject. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Feb 2, 2016 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ TA? Please edit and explain. This is an international site. $\endgroup$
    – user1569
    Feb 3, 2016 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe in here: Books and Ideas Podcast: Dr. Pamela Gay of Astronomy Cast $\endgroup$
    – user1569
    Feb 3, 2016 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ I want to thank everyone who has contributed so far. I was going to try to get desk copies today, but the admin who knows who to call was out sick today. I'll try again on Monday. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2016 at 0:57

3 Answers 3


Kaufman & Freedman's Universe is a very basic astronomy book aimed at non-astronomy science students or astronomy 1st year students, although for the latter it is perhaps a bit too basic. It covers introductions to all the topics you mention, except perhaps exoplanets (but my edition is from the late 90's; my guess is they have it covered too by now). It even gives suggestions for observing projects at the end of each chapter, along with exercises and extra literature. It is also very rich in pictures and explanatory diagrams.

  • $\begingroup$ I can concur, the newer edition covers now also Exoplanets and Protoplanetary discs. I saw it somewhere at my department, seems pretty good as intro on pretty much everything in astronomy & astrophysics. The math is pretty basic, so I guess the lecturer would be free to include some analytical mechanics. I don't see however where thermodynamics would play in, except for atmospheres and newer developments in cosmology. $\endgroup$ Feb 2, 2016 at 17:14

Zeilik's Introductory Astronomy and Astrophysics is worth investigating. It's more in depth than Kaufman & Freedman's Universe, mentioned in another answer, but requires a little more mathematical background such as basic calculus and trigonometry.

I'd also recommend looking at online courses from providers such as Coursera, Khan Academy and edx (and here) for inspiration on how to structure such a course.


Some years ago I did an astronomy course for non astronomers at our university where they used Koupelis' In Quest Of The Universe. Although it changed a bit from my edition (fourth) to the current (seventh), it still seems to cover the same subjects.

It talks about the history, modern astronomy, measurement, the planets, stars, galaxies, etc. The book also has exercises with answers for self-study. Using the index I could find most of the things you wanted the book to discuss.

The book also has a website with different resources to help the students to study the material, such as quizzes, chapter outlines, flashcards, etc.


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