So What IS the Astronomy Major?

Bruce Partridge and Juan Cabanela

Author's Note: These are the notes from the results of our investigation into the astronomy major in the United States. First presented in January 2002 at the 199th AAS Meeting in Washington, DC, the final results of this work have been published in the Astronomy Education Review as Cabanela and Partridge 2002 (local copy).

We have examined catalog copy for 60 US colleges and universities that offer an astronomy major (a list derived from an AIP enrollment study). The institutions are split roughly 50-50 between baccalaureate and doctoral institutions.

For each of the 60 institutions, we examined the astronomy (or physics) department Web page or other information to determine the stated nature of the astronomy major. We then looked at the nature of each required course in astronomy and physics to determine the basic nature of its scientific content. After a bit of trial and error, we settled on 20 categories of astronomy courses and 18 categories of physics courses (see Table 1). Some institutions offer courses that cover more than one of these topics; in these cases we attempted to partition the course according to its course description. That allowed us to construct a matrix showing which courses and/or topics were required for an astronomy major at each of the 60 institutions.

Here we report some overall observations. First, there is very little uniformity in the definition of an astronomy major, if that definition is taken to be a set of specifically required courses. For instance, several institutions do not require any particular choices of courses. That is, while a set number of courses must be taken to constitute an astronomy major at these institutions, no particular course is required of all students. Other institutions require up to nine, specific, astronomy courses.

There is actually more uniformity in the physics requirements than in the astronomy requirements. All astronomy majors, for instance, require the standard mechanics and E & M first year courses, and a substantial majority require advanced E & M as well. Other frequent requirements in physics include Introductory QM/Waves, Advanced Mechanics, Optics, Thermo/StatMech and Advanced QM. These are all required roughly as frequently as the most frequently required astronomy courses, stellar and extragalactic.

In Table 1, we give figures for the mean of the number of semesters required in each topic. For instance, a substantial number of institutions require introduction to stellar astrophysics and extragalactic/cosmology (0.535 and 0.571 semesters in the mean). On the other hand, a wide range of topics are not required by any institutions, including solar physics, advanced ISM, and so on. If we compare Ph.D. granting institutions with 4 year colleges, we see that the 4 year colleges are less likely to require a course called "Topics in Astronomy," and more likely to teach high energy astrophysics and galactic structure. Otherwise, there is little difference between baccalaureate and Ph.D. institutions.

While the mean numbers for each scientific category are not otherwise very different between research universities and liberal arts colleges, these mean figures hide a wide variation in the actual requirements. We end as we began by stating that there is more variation than uniformity in the definition of the major, at least as determined by required courses.

We are now examining the issue of elective courses. That is, many institutions offer a variety of courses, some required and some not, but then go on to require that students elect a certain number of courses in addition to those specifically required. Haverford is an example: we require Stellar Astrophysics and then ask students to select among three additional astronomy courses from a list including Extragalactic/Cosmology, General Relativity, Observational Methods and Non-optical Astronomy. Since we have no way of knowing which students take which electives in which numbers in such cases, all we can do is state the total number of courses required for an astronomy major, subtract from it the number of courses specifically required, and report the number of electives a student has to select.

The wide variation in requirements suggests that we look more carefully to distinguish between those institutions that offer a true, stand-alone astronomy degree with a reasonable number (however "reasonable" is defined) of required courses in astronomy, and contrast that to institutions that offer an astronomy major essentially by grafting a course or two onto a nominal physics major. We will do so.