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CU astronomy »


Courses taught since 2010 (click on semester to see summary/feedback from students):


Fall 2017: Astronomy UN1836: Stars and Atoms

Stars and Atoms students learn to use their hands to measure angular sizes, October 2017. The object whose size they are measuring is the Eiffel Tower.

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Spring 2017: Astronomy UN1403: Earth, Moon, and Planets

I'm going to stop counting how often I've taught this class. Two changes relative to years past, one small and one large. The small one was the addition of lecture tutorials (LTs); building on my experience in Stars and Atoms, I tried hard to do about one LT a week (I failed). Unlike the first time I used them, I did have the students hand the LTs in and (lightly) graded them--altogether the LTs contributed 5% to the final grade. I also was more careful to include follow-up think-pair-share questions after the LTs and at the start of lectures to reinforce material covered in the LTs... and finally, because I didn't do as many in class as I would've liked, I wound up assigning a handful as part of homeworks, which I know goes against the way they are intended to be used but felt better than not doing them at all.

The larger change involved exams. I added a second midterm, which allowed me to move the first one up. The idea there was to give students earlier exposure to exam material--and feedback on their exam performance--than in past semesters. The more exciting change, from my perspective, was to modify the exam format so that students did it first on their own (in the case of the midterm, for 50 min), handed in that version, and then did it again with a partner (for 30 min). If they scored higher on the solo exam they kept that score; if they scored higher on the joint exam (which is what one would hope!), the scores from the two exams were averaged to determine their midterm score. I was very nervous about trying this, among other reasons because of the need to have an even number of students(!). But I'm glad I did: it is a great way of reinforcing the idea that the group work exemplified by the think-pair-shares and the LTs is something I really value. (Like most of my teaching-related ideas, I stole this one from the Center for Astronomy Education's discussion group, astrolrner.) One practical note: next time I'll stick a sign on the door during the final--students kept wandering in thinking the exam was over, presumably because they could hear people talking...!

Earth, Moon, and Planets students visiting the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, April 2017. In the foreground to the right is a first edition of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. To the left is one of Giovanni Schiaparelli's maps of Mars, showing the famous canals.

The final exam once again included the bonus question "Has this class changed the way you think about science?" Any answer was worth a few points, an idea I stole from Doug Duncan.

Some of my favorite answers:
"This course has taught me the difference between a hypothesis, a model, and a theory. I'm able to understand that theories are not just ideas or personal opinions, but are rigorously tested and supported with evidence. I've also learned how much science changes as we gather more evidence. Often I think we look at science as absolute truth, but this course has taught me that as we gather new evidence, our understanding grows."

"Perhaps the most important thing this class taught me is this: Having the right answer is not nearly as important as asking the right questions. Because there is just so much mystery surrounding the galaxy, it also means there are so many unanswered questions."

"Yes--before this class, I thought of science as separate from my life. It was something that affected the world as I knew it, but not me specifically. Now, I feel like I have a better understanding of how science and the way the world has developed scientifically affect me personally (from greenhouse gases to the tides to the discoveries of Tycho Brahe). I didn't used to ever think about science unless I was in class. Now, I'll look at the night sky and know what phase the moon is in or why a planet is in retrograde."

"There was a poignant moment toward the end of the first half of the semester when a peer asked a "can you prove it wasn't aliens" question in which you replied "why can't we accept the possibility of human excellence?" For me, the optimism that science represents in the face of ignorance/unknown/lack of understanding is a deeply beautiful thing--something I had not been so keenly aware of in recent memory."

"Yes. Before this class, I saw the world as one giant mystery--it's [sic] formation, processes, relationship to the solar system and universe. Now, I have a basic understanding of how and why things happened in history and the present (pertaining to astronomy, of course). It's awesome to be able to look up and tell time with the moon, or know why the tides occur, or know how small we are, and so much more. I now see the importance and intrigue of science, as a very non-sciency person."

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Fall 2016: Astronomy UN3101: Modern Stellar Astrophysics

My third time teaching this class. I tried to incorporate things that had worked the last time (including having the students present on Annual Review articles and giving an oral final) but also included a traditional midterm, gave five problem sets rather than four, and did more in-class group exercises to assess learning and clarify difficult points.

The feedback was very positive, with some grousing about the midterm being too difficult and the homeworks not necessarily mirroring the lecture material (both fair points). Sample responses to the course evaluation question below--the second one is very long, but its a nice summary of all the things I tried to do...!
"Most of all, I learned critical thinking and problem solving. This class helped me better learn how to solve problems by using assumptions and estimations and learn when those are appropriate."

"I really liked the presentations that we had to do (and it definitely beat having another written midterm!). The presentations were engaging and I think they definitely enriched my understanding of related material that wasn't your run of the mill coursework. The problem sets were tough and time-consuming, so I'm glad they were only every other week (roughly). The midterm exam was fairly difficult and a formula sheet would have been useful, but I think it was definitely beneficial when we redid the questions that caused the most trouble from the exam in class. I also think the idea of an oral final was very good and in all honesty, quite fun. Like with the presentations, I enjoyed being able to read about a topic not necessarily contained within the bounds of the course (although definitely related). I think the presentations were beneficial not only because they were a sort of breath of fresh air in the monotonous cycle of problem sets and midterms that defines the life of astronomy and physics majors, but I also believe that it helps develop certain skills that are necessary for a career in science. Skills such as presentation in front of your peers and being able to explain scientific concepts concisely and effectively is critical for any aspiring physicist or astronomer and I'm very glad that assignments meant to develop those skills were included in the course."

In terms of my teaching style, the responses were again very positive, with one complaint about my lack of fixed office hours (I've never found those to work especially well anyway, but they seemed particularly unnecessary with a class this size) and one about the pressure that coming up with questions for the exit polls creates. Not too sure what to do about the latter point, particularly since many students pointed to the exit polls as one of the best things about the class:
"He is very easy to talk to and is very committed to giving students as much information as possible on the topics that interest them. I think this is best evidenced through the "exit polls" that he requires at the end of every class where students submit questions to him that they struck them during the lecture but wouldn't necessarily be on-topic enough to ask during class time. He always provides very thorough responses and is genuinely invested in explaining the answer to the student."

"Great instructor. He's friendly, always available, and obviously cares about what he teaches. He's also a good lecturer, and works through the examples and equations from his powerpoint slides. He helped us work through problems from graded work a couple times to make sure that we understood what was going on. Professor Agueros wants to make sure we understood what we were doing. Also, he had us submit questions to him after every lecture. I've never had a professor that was so engaged with the class. I hope I can take a class with him again."

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Spring 2016: Astronomy W1836: Stars and Atoms

My first time teaching this class, which I structured to include more physics and less history-of-ideas than my Earth, Moon, and Planets class. This was also my first time trying to include lecture tutorials in class, which I think worked really well. I need to work on incorporating follow-up to the tutorials (they don't come with answer keys, which some students find frustrating), but I really liked how they engaged the students, reinforced concepts, and broke up the lectures. Halfway through the class, I also experimented with voting on think-pair-share questions, which worked relatively well. The one mystery is what happened to my attendance--a quarter to a third of the class routinely missed lectures, which as far as I can recall was far more than in my more traditional lecture-format Earth, Moon, and Planets classes. Go figure.

Stars and Atoms students practice using their hands to measure angular sizes, February 2016. In the front row is my TA for the class, Alex Teachey.

The final exam once again included the bonus question "Has this class changed the way you think about science?" Any answer was worth a few points, an idea I stole from Doug Duncan.

Some of my favorite answers:
"[...] this class has made me more inclined to think of the more collaborative, data driven, and to some extent mundane aspects of science. There is little glamor [sic] in making hundreds of parallax measures late at night for years in a row. Similarly, rarely do we sing the praises of someone who fruitlessly scanned hundreds of galaxies looking for the faint brightening of a distant supernova. Now however I am much more inclined to give thanks to such figures for our understanding of our place in the universe."

"This class reminded me that 1. I am quite insignificant and 2. Statistically, the odds of me being able to exist at this moment is so incredibly slim, so I am grateful for the opportunity I have to live (even if part of it was spent toiling over an intro level astronomy course). Thank you."

This was my first taste of the new course evaluations, which generally seem like an improvement (fewer Likert scale questions, more short answer ones). Overall the reviews were very good, with a few notable dissenting voices:
"I thought the course was a good intro to astronomy. I'd never taken an astronomy course before, and the course started off simple enough to understand for someone with nearly no astronomy background, and now I feel I can participate in a conversation about the topics that were taught."

"Marcel was incredible. His casual nature made a potentially intimidating topic interesting. His willingness to discuss other topics that pertained to astronomy but not necessarily the class made it special. Also, his ability to make a lecture feel like a small class was really nice."

"I absolutely loved Professor Agueros. His teaching style was incredible and very open. I never felt like I didn't understand what was going on. In addition, he made the class very interactive which was great in order to get out of powerpoint. If the class he is teaching next semester didn't have pre-reqs I would've easily took it."

Now, the dissenters (of which there were only a couple):
"Dud of a class. [...] The lecture tutorials especially were not helpful. We were given way too much time to work on them and they felt more like something that should have been assigned for outside class. That way I could have worked on them when I needed more practice on a topic and skipped the ones for the topics I understood."

"Not a good professor. He is not very approachable or good at lecturing. His lectures (including slides) could be much more concise. He seems bored teaching this class which in turn makes me feel bored attending class. He also could balance the time alloted [sic] to each topic better. Easy stuff (pretty much the whole first half of the semester) should have only taken 3 or 4 weeks and everything else could have been given more time."

I won't comment on whether I'm approachable or good at lecturing, but I think the criticism of the Lecture Tutorials is worth considering, as is the balance between the first half of the class (which is mainly introductory physics) and the second half (stellar evolution).

The other big complaint was about the in-class quizzes: I gave two, each of which was worth a quarter of a homework, so that together they accounted for 4% of the overall grade. The lesson here: never say that attendance is not mandatory, because apparently that's interpreted to mean "I don't need to come at all."

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Spring 2015: Astronomy W1403: Earth, Moon, and Planets

My third time teaching this class. Forty students, which I liked; more homeworks than in the past, which I think helped with exam preparation. Failed to get to the gas giants, yet again, never mind exoplanets...

The final exam once again included the bonus question "Has this class changed the way you think about science?" Any answer was worth a few points, an idea I stole from Doug Duncan.

Some of my favorite answers:
"It has enormously changed my perspective of the history of science, and subsequently improved my esteem for the human race. It makes a big difference to be told how our predecessors arrived at these conclusions that we take so much for granted now, rather than simply to hear that they did. We have produced many clever, commendable, eccentric, and above all enthusiastic people. I will remember that."

"[...] I was lying down on the lawn a few nights ago with some of my friends and started to explain how small we are and how the universe is structured. It was (at least from what I can remember) the first time I'd ever incorporated science into my conversation with confidence."

"[...] I now try to think of a cause for most natural things I encounter. Science has peaked my curiosity in how things work and this course has been a guiding force in increasing my curiosity and interest in the inner workings of our natural and man-made surroundings."

Sample comments from the class evaluations, in response to "What were the best aspects of this course?":
"Professor Agueros puts in a lot of effort and that is clear to the students. By doing so he sets the tone for a serious course that is not typical of science for non-science major courses."

"I liked a lot of the quirky little asides. Also the exit polls are a nice way to get a sense of what we were thinking about the material and I liked that you always addressed them."

"Provides an environment for students to think through a topic. The information is not simply handed to us and memorized. Prof. Agueros' enthusiasm inspires interest for science."

And in response to "Would you recommend this class to a friend?" (no one answered "no"):
"I would. It would help make him more mindful of misconceptions about astronomy, and would be surprisingly helpful for developing hobby interests in stargazing (when not in New York, at least). It also gives one an appreciation for - well - how precarious our existence is in the grand scheme of things."

"Yes, I'd recommend. Lectures were delivered clearly and I felt like there was a great effort at getting feedback/questions from students."

The most negative comment was probably that the exams were "gruesome," which I loved as a description, if not as an experience for the student in question!

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Fall 2014: Astronomy C3101: Modern Stellar Astrophysics

My second time teaching this class. I had eight students, which freed me to try a few different things: for one, there was no midterm; instead, each student had to prepare a 20-25 min presentation on an Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics article related to stellar astrophysics (topics ranged from solar neutrinos to stellar multiplicity to short-duration gamma-ray bursts). For another, the final was a half-hour oral exam during which each student answered my questions about another Annual Review article, on the impact of mass-loss on the evolution of high-mass stars. I still think the course content could be better structured, and I definitely did not use the textbook (which was supposed to be Carroll & Ostlie), but overall it went pretty well. Only four students filled out the evaluation, so take the following with a grain of salt.

Sample comments from the evaluations for this class:
"Professor Agueros was phenomenal. He was a great lecturer and really helped us understand the course material to his fullest extent. Additionally, he really paid attention to student input with the exit polls and incorporated answers into the start of the next class, which I thought was really neat and something none of my other professors would ever do."

"The assignments were very reasonable in that I felt I could tackle them while still being challenged. Sometimes phrasing could be a little unclear as to where the solution of the problem should go, but this was minor. I really liked the presentation format of the midterm. Making the presentation helped me organize and therefore better understand my annual review, much more than I think a written exam that I studied a lot for would have."

"It was so damn interesting. I learned so much and I felt like every lecture I walked away understanding something I didn't know about before class. That feeling is irreplaceable and quite honestly something I don't think I've gotten out of any other class at Columbia."

"Best astronomy or physics professor I've had! It was sometimes stressful to have the daily exit polls and to come up with questions every time, but it was a great way to structure the class and for us to actually get to ask questions we're curious about. And the exit polls would be answered very well each time, and was a way for us to structure lecture on what we wanted to learn more about."

Maybe the most surprising evaluation ever:
"I actually would have liked more homework. The six we were supposed to have instead of the four we did would have been nice. I always got a good diagnostic of what I didn't have a good understanding of and was able to then learn a lot doing the homework."

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Spring 2014: Astronomy G9004: Research Seminar

The biggest change relative to other times I have taught this class was that I required that everyone write and submit a MDM proposal, and that we then went through the exercise of convening a mock time-allocation committee (which included Jules Halpern, who does the actual time allocation for MDM) to assess these proposals. I didn't get that many comments in the evaluations, but here are a couple:
"Compared to other semesters, where the professor talked most of the time or one or two students did big presentations, I liked that we all got to participate in discussion/workshopping every week, and learned about topics (like review boards and conflicts of interest) that we may not have come across until the post-doc stage."

"I would characterize this semester as being focused on the professional development side of research, since we talked about ethics, how to write proposals, how to give good talks, etc. In comparison to last semester, I am walking away with much more concrete / readily applicable skills. And as much as we bemoaned having to do the observational proposal, it did end up being a positive experience. [...] The only thing I would change about the course is to reduce the amount of time spent on the ethics discussion. Though it was useful and interesting, I felt we spent too long (5 weeks I think?). Maybe 2-3 classes discussing ethics at most. With the extra time, maybe spend time discussing the process of writing grant proposals, code sharing (which I know was planned, but fell through), or how to properly network."

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Spring 2013: Astronomy C3101: Modern Stellar Astrophysics

My first time teaching a class for majors. I thought that the class pitched at too high a level, and I was somewhat surprised that the course reviews were uniformly positive (on the other hand, only a third of the class filled them out). One thing that did work well was to bring in various guests to discuss current research related to topics we touched on in class. After I talked about the solar neutrino problem, for example, I got enough interest that I decided to invite a graduate student from physics to discuss current neutrino detection experiments. Another thing I did was to not only collect but also answer the exit polls (the one-minute essays I have students fill out at the end of each lecture). I was able to be responsive to concerns and also identify areas (such as neutrino research!) that students were interested in learning more about.

Sample comments from the evaluations for this class:
"I enjoyed whenever we saw cutting edge research and stuff in class. It really brings out the emerging nature of astrophysics knowledge."

"The exit polls were great--both for getting answers to questions, and stimulating deeper thought about the subject."

"I found most course materials interesting. This was my first astro course, so I was always being introduced to new concepts taught and discussed in class. The best part was that I got a decent sense of what astrophysicists know and don't know today."

"Prof. Agueros was one of the best teachers I've had at Columbia over the last four years. It was great that his slides were detailed and thorough, because it made reviewing much easier. Some students were complaining that the slides had too many details and were hard to read during class, but in my opinion, difficult course materials are learned mostly during review anyway, so lots of details were helpful."

The negatives:
"I wish the grading process was explained at the beginning of the semester. It was definitely harder than in previous courses in the department, and as this differs professor to professor it would be helpful to know what the professor is looking for in exams and homework. Also more direction on what to focus on for exams would have been helpful, even just a list of what we are expected to know by the end of the course."

"I was not a huge fan of the exit polls, although they do allow for greater teacher-student interaction."

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Fall 2012: Astronomy C1403: Earth, Moon, and Planets

My second time around teaching this class and it was, if nothing else, more coherent than the first time (phew!). The final exam included the bonus question "Has this class changed the way you think about science?" Any answer was worth a few points, an idea I stole from Doug Duncan.

Some of my favorite answers (hard to choose; there were lots of great ones):
"[...] I generally derived my sense of how difficult a science was by how much math was involved. What I've garnered from this course is that science doesn't always have to involve numbers; the concepts, theories, principles and over all ideas in much of what I've learned about astronomy are just as, if not more complex and scientific as any lengthy mathematical equation."

"[...] I'm used to being given formulas and plugging and chugging numbers. I've never really liked science because I never understand the concepts behind what we're doing. I enjoyed this class though because it was different and because I can use what I learned in other classes. I learned that science can help you develop your ability to analyze, if it is taught well."

"[...] I will never again let someone win the argument by saying, "It's just a theory.""

"This class changed the way I think about science by putting the facts and theories in the context of a long-running historical dialog among many great thinkers and observers. I wish other science classes would do the same, as it really humanizes the subject matter, makes it more accessible, and inspires me to learn more independently."

"Science isn't about reducing the beauty of the universe into cold, hard facts and figures. It's about exploring and celebrating the magic behind the workings of the world. Science isn't about knowledge. It's about continuing to be filled with wonder and awe at the natural phenomena we observe every day. Science is poetry."

Sample comments from the class evaluations, in response to "What were the best aspects of this course?":
"Hands-down the "trip" to the rare manuscript library to see (AND HOLD!) 1st edition Galileo, Newton and Copernicus books! What an amazing (once in a lifetime) experience."

"I really enjoyed the historical discussions, including the lecture about the space race and the discussion of the specific Mars rover missions and what each one individually accomplished."

A couple of comments highlighted an issue that I was pretty sure would come up when I decided to get rid of the quizzes (which the 2010 group despised):
"When it comes to preparing for the exams, be more clear about what is important for us to understand."

"I felt unprepared for the midterm. We had covered a great deal of material, and I felt that we weren't made aware of what in particular we needed to know and practice in depth."

So that's something I'll need to revisit next time around (Spring 2014??)...

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Spring 2012: Astronomy G9002: Graduate Seminar
High-Impact Papers in Astronomy & Astrophysics

Zoltán Haiman and I co-taught this class, which had two goals: to read, discuss, and understand high-impact papers in astronomy across a range of sub-fields, and to examine how and why particular papers have high impact. It was also intended to develop presentation and classroom-discussion skills. We struggled a bit to get the right balance between presentation and discussion, and some papers proved to be more motivating than others. But overall I thought it went pretty well.

Sample comments from the evaluations for this class:
"I wish we had focused more on classic papers. About half-way through the semester the class veered more towards reviewing large topics in astronomy. ("Putting it in context" turned into "reviewing the related astronomy".) I preferred discussing the physics of 1-2 seminal papers each week."

"I enjoyed and benefited from the first half of the semester much more than the second half of the semester, both as a presenter and an attendee. In the first half it seemed that very interesting and relevant papers were suggested and thus the discussion was always pertinent to those papers. In the second half it felt like we were just trying to touch on various topics (e.g. jets, asteroseismology, exoplanets)."

Definitely fair criticisms and something we will have to work on for the next time around...

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Fall 2011: Astronomy G9003: Research Seminar

I decided to have this class focus on the Astro2010 Decadal Survey. It was yet another experiment and I think it was semi-successful. I certainly learned a lot, but it was not always easy to generate good discussions, and sometimes the class felt rushed.

Sample comments from the evaluations for this class:
"I thought the class was really helpful in presenting an aspect of the profession that you only learn about from people who have been around longer. I'm finding that there are many things you learn in grad school by having the information passed down from older students and advisors. Picking a major topic (decadal survey; submitting a paper; research proposals, etc) like this for each semester might be a good format for the research seminar in the future."

on the other hand:

"The annual [sic] report was fun to dissect, but I wonder if it was the very best use of everyone's time."

So some mixed feelings about the usefulness of this class. Throw in some very different opinions about what the best use of research seminar is (both in this set of evaluations and in those from Spring 2011), and it's clear that the debate about this class is nowhere near over!

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Spring 2011: Astronomy G9004: Research Seminar

A few articles of interest, possibly, for discussions of graduate student professional development:

Sample comments:
"I really appreciate that you made the class less about the research that we're specifically doing (I think our advisors are best to discuss this with) and more about research skills in general."

"I really liked how the course focused on how to present your research to others. It helped us become better researchers without us just going around and talking about what we did that week. Perhaps a way to enforce this next semester would be to make a few people each meeting give a pizza-lunch type presentation just so we keep practicing giving presentations."

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Fall 2010: Astronomy C1403: Earth, Moon, and Planets

Thanks to Mahmoud Samori for pointing out the following review of my class from CULPA, which I'd never heard of:
"Marcel is a great professor, his lectures are super funny and are always enjoyable to go to, I highly recommend him if you actually want to learn about astronomy. He seems very interested in 2012 and the end of the world. There are only 4 homework assignments which are pretty easy. His quizzes are pretty tough if you don't go to lectures or study. You need to read everything from the book. The midterm and final were quite easy as long you put the work in to study. He is a really nice guy and he is always available to answer questions, and his sense of humor is great. This class isn't easy, but at the end of the course you actually feel like you learned something useful."

See the full review here. For the record, I'm not that interested in the end of the world, and there were only three homework assignments!

I found another CULPA review here. One telling quote:
"In terms of the class itself, the topics covered are just enough to give you a good understanding of the universe, physics, and ratios/scales. Anyone can understand it if you pay attention. Yes, the quizes [sic] can sometimes throw you for a loop because he expects you not only to know the material from the text and lectures but also how to apply them in other ways--taking the formulas and laws and using them to explain astronomical happenings in your own words, essentially."

I'm sure there will be some negative reviews there soon, but I plan not to check...

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