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Introduction to PHSCS 127
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Department of Physics and Astronomy Learning Outcomes for Physics 127

  1. Students will be able to answer conceptual questions using correct astrophysical terminology about the following core astronomy concepts:
    • the motion of the Earth and the objects seen in the visible sky
    • how and into what the Universe is organized by gravity at all scales from the solar system to the superclusters of galaxies.
    • the significant and unique characteristics of each planet and other components of the solar system.
    • the essential physical concepts that govern the life cycle of stars from creation to death, how the Sun compares to other stars, and the changes the Sun and stars will go through during their life cycles.
    • the structure and classification of galaxies and clusters of galaxies.
    • the central ideas of and evidences for current big bang cosmologies.
  2.   Students will be able to identify common naked eye constellations, bright stars and deep sky objects in the sky.
  3. Students will gain practical experience by performing their own Astronomical observations, interpreting their observations and communicating their results.
  4. Students will appreciate the grandeur of our Savior's universe.

Learning Outcomes for Physics 127

  1. Learn about the nature of the Universe: Remember, the Universe comprises all that we can currently observe and many other things that we have not yet managed to see even with our most powerful instruments and tools. You will also find out that the Universe contains many objects we are now able to observe for the first time in history. Thus, this first objective should not be taken lightly. Even though this is a descriptive level class, when the subject matter is the entire Universe it means that you should expect to experience plenty of new ideas.
  2. Be an observer: Most people are unaware of how much you can observe about the Universe without the aid of modern technology. These observations can be made easily by knowing where to look and investing a little time. Many of the observing projects in this class are designed to help you learn more about the night sky and how to recognize what you see.
  3. Understand how the principles of physics apply to astronomy: You will learn how astronomers are detectives. They discover the nature of stars and galaxies by applying the laws of physics to faint glimmers of light seen from Earth. They use scientific reasoning to deduce the conditions that exist in places we will likely never be able to visit. It amazes me that during the few decades I’ve been involved with astronomy and astrophysics, technology has made many advances that allow us to actually witness events and conditions that were previously regarded as only theory. The Great Observatories Program from NASA has allowed scientists and astronomers to observe many celestial objects that had been proposed just a few years before. Today, it is not uncommon to observe events that were considered beyond the reach of technology just a decade ago. It is gratifying to know that as scientists propose many complex new theories, technology enables us to confirm that we understood many of them correctly!
  4. Gain an accurate understanding of how astronomers gain knowledge: I want to be clear right from the start: I do not accept everything I read in various astronomy books and journals. Just like any other science, the material on the frontier is not considered to be absolute truth. It is the best idea that we have at the present time. It may change tomorrow or the next day. In fact, over the past couple of decades I’ve seen these changes occur many times. Please remember that the current changes usually concern small points of detail or minor modifications. At the present it seems unlikely that there will be a major scientific revolution concerning the fundamental nature of the Universe. I truly believe we are living in a “golden age” for astrophysics and cosmology. What was considered wild speculation just a decade or two in the past is now part of a rigorous science that is continually being confirmed with amazing regularity by new experiments. What a wonderful time to be a scientist or a student! It is truly amazing that we are able to determine so many things just by being clever. What I want you to take from this course is the realization that, through the use of natural laws and the ability to think and reason, we can learn a great deal of information about places and objects that are so remote we will never have an opportunity to actually visit them. This information is not imaginary, but rather represents a great achievement for all of mankind.

How to Succeed in This Course

The most successful online students find that they must study carefully and learn to wisely budget their time. This is a new experience for many students. Even advanced students who have taken many classes at the university level are often surprised by the amount of effort required to complete a course online. You will not get a less rigorous version of this class by taking it through online. I have carefully made sure that the material presented in this class is as close as possible to what is discussed in regular sections presented on campus.

I have three suggestions for succeeding in this course. First, I expect you to put forth your best effort. Next, I want you to remember to use all the course resources at your disposal. This includes reading the material that is found in this course materials. You will find that many of your questions will be answered as you read through the discussion material for each lesson. Finally, I expect you to experiment with some original or novel ways of looking at the Universe.

I have made certain that all the answers to questions in the submitted lessons are not given word for word in the text. There will be a few questions per submission that you will have to figure out yourself by extending some fact that was explained in the lesson. Actually, you need to remember my comment about how astronomers rely on logic to deduce the nature of things unseen. I want the course to reflect this fact, so I have left a few puzzles for you to solve. You will find that most of the more challenging questions will be in the submitted lessons. These, along with the mini-exams, will provide material for the final exam. If you are stumped by a question, remember that it is just one question out of several hundred. It will not be the end of the world if you miss a point here and there. The quiz format allows me to provide you with brief feedback on each question that gave you trouble, and makes it so you get that feedback immediately.

Please don't be afraid to think for yourself. Remember that is one of the major goals for this course. Also, remember to use your resources. I do get just a little irritated when I provide extra material in a discussion section and a student writes me a message about how unfair a question is because it is not in the book. I feel that the time I took to provide extra materials gained from my experience through decades of work as a research astronomer is wasted if students will not read my comments.

Also, the textbook for this course is a superb reference. Do not hesitate to use the glossary, the index, and the appendices as you search for an answer. Further, my campus lecture notes are also provided in this course. You literally have the entire class available just as it would look on campus. The only major difference is that you can't see what kind of goofy astronomy shirt I'm going to be wearing to class each day!

Course Requirements

Again, remember not to make the mistake of thinking that you will get a watered-down version of this course since it is done through distance learning. The truth is that you must complete exactly the same material that the BYU Physics Department offers in the regular on-campus version of the course. The difference is that you must read the text carefully and repeatedly in order to make up for the lack of classroom lectures. Since most of you don’t have access to student tutorial labs at a college or university, you must work through the concepts in the text and do your best to complete the assignments.


Since this is a descriptive level course, you are not expected to bring with you any prerequisite skills or special talents in order to achieve success by the end of this class. I want to make it clear that this is not a class that requires use of higher math skills. This does not mean that you will not be asked to add, subtract, multiply, and yes, maybe even divide a few rather large numbers as you move through the lessons. You will find it easier if you can use scientific notation and if you understand what is meant by the logarithm of a number. Some things are just easier if you have these skills. However, you will still be able to do just fine even if these ideas are not part of your skills. I will make a real effort to explain things that are a little more confusing.

In general, astronomy is not studied in great depth until students have completed an undergraduate degree in physics and enrolled in graduate school. Once again, remember this is a descriptive level course and I will not require you to master the many mathematical intricacies of astrophysics. I'm aware that some students have very high levels of anxiety. Even being asked to plug a couple of numbers into a formula can seem traumatic. Please bear with me. I do this for a reason and I hope you will see that the reason lies just below the surface. If you miss the deeper meaning of some concept, remember, it is okay. However, the argument that the course's description is contradicted by having to measure an angle or perform simple arithmetic is not acceptable.

Time Requirements

I feel that it is not possible to do well in this course without working hard for at least two months. I will allow you to move as fast as you like; however, please be aware that you do so at your own risk! Remember that even though I say that you may move through this course as rapidly as you wish; rules and regulations governing online courses change from time to time and thus there may be official policies that regulate the time required to complete a course. I have no influence or ability to regulate these official requirements. Please do not send me any of your questions regarding the administrative aspects of the online course, as I have no authority regarding these matters.

Also, please remember that I have hundreds of students working in various sections of the online classes that I teach. These students are all working at different rates in different classes and each of them has a different set of skills. At the end of each semester, I receive hundreds of requests from students taking this course who describe to me their own special circumstances and important deadlines. It is simply not possible for me to make some kind of special arrangements to assist an individual student in these instances.

Additionally, please do not try to alter the organization of the course. You should submit your exams and assignments in the proper numerical. Each lesson must be tracked through the course, or it may be lost. Under no circumstances should you try to send assignments and exams directly to me in order to bypass the course. If you do this, there is no record or copy of your submission and I am not allowed to enter a grade for any lesson that has not been marked as received in the online Gradebook.

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Course Materials

The textbook for this course is Freedman, Roger A., Robert M. Geller, and William J. Kaufman. 2011. Universe. 9th edition. W. H. Freeman and Company.

Read the Text!

I have been working with distance-education and online courses for more than twenty-five years and in that time I have come to realize that a great textbook is likely the most valuable resource that I can provide to help a typical online student succeed in the course. Also, due to the format of online classes, it is important to use a book that is packed with the most current information available.

The official textbook that I use for this class is Universe, 9th edition, by Roger A. Freedman, Robert M. Geller, and William J. Kaufmann, III. This textbook is absolutely ideal for both the on-campus and online versions of the course. The astronomy professors at BYU have tried using several of the smaller textbooks for the descriptive astronomy course. For the most part, these have been a disappointment because they often leave most students with too many unanswered questions. The textbook we have ultimately chosen for this course is revised every few years, but it ages well.

Please be aware that the textbook goes into far more detail than you will need to get an "A" in this class. This textbook is a wonderful reference. If you enjoy this material, you may want to keep this book in your library as a reference for many years in the future. I took special care to select a textbook that would be able to provide almost any answer a student might want answered. I realize that many of you live in relatively isolated areas and you can get discouraged very quickly if there is no place to find answers to questions. I know that the Internet brings many references into our homes, but the book is still nice to keep handy. I hope you will find the textbook and the supplemental material to be user friendly.

You will do much better in this class if you take the time to read the material in this course and in the textbook. Do not try to skip the reading in the course. If you skip that material, you are going to miss important ideas and much of the supplemental material that I have included to make the class a little less difficult. I have selected the assignment questions to be similar and sometimes even identical to what you will find on the final exam in this course.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I feel that reading the text is the real key to success. I know that most students do not make a habit of actually reading textbooks. Students generally get through a course by listening and taking notes during classroom lectures. There is nothing especially bad about this habit; however, it does take away some of your potential as a student. I found this to be true many years ago when I took a course in calculus through, what was then called BYU Home Study. For the first time in my academic career, I found I had to read a textbook—there was no getting around that fact. I had always been a very good student, but I found that I had no idea what was going on in the course unless I read the book and worked the problems. During this time, I made another discovery: many of the textbooks I had were pretty well written and contained many helpful hints.

There are always some typos in the various editions of the text, but there is no need to report those to BYU, as there really isn’t anything we can do to correct those. If you find a typo in the course materials, please let us know so that it can be corrected. This is especially helpful in the current electronic version of the class because it is possible to make quick and easy modifications.

Other Resources

You will find that I often reference articles and pictures that have been archived on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website. This is a fantastic reference to a wide variety of topics related to astronomy, many of which we will cover during this course.

Another valuable resource at your disposal is in the course itself. These materials have been prepared to provide a collection of visual aids in one place. These are intended to help clarify some of the more difficult concepts in the course. Of particular note, you will find an [ LINK REMOVED ] electronic star chart that will be especially helpful in learning the constellations.

Additionally, this course contains the lecture outlines and notes derived from the campus lectures. I realize that I can't force you to use any of the material for the class, but I strongly suggest once again that you make an effort to stay current with new discoveries. Finally, using these materials will certainly help you understand some of the more complex ideas covered in this course.

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Course Organization

I have divided this course into 23 lessons. The course is designed using a model known as the assessment track. That is because I know exactly which concepts I want to deliver in this course, and I have more than twenty years of experience testing students on these concepts. Each of the lessons is organized into several sections, including the following:

Discussion Material: The discussion material in the course will be helpful as you study the science of astronomy. This is where I have a chance to add some of my experience and insight into the subject. I am not able to compensate for the lack of classroom lectures; you will still need to get through most of this on your own. However, in the discussions I will do my best to supplement some of the areas where I find the text a bit hard to follow, and I will discuss some of the general ideas that have always interested me as I have studied physics at various levels. Also, I will use much of the discussion material to give you hints and ideas about how to keep the concepts straight in your mind.

You will quickly find that my discussion material will illustrate a concept that you will see on one of the mini-exams or the final exam. I apologize in advance that the discussion material is often quite brief. I have taught these classes for more than twenty years, and I have found that, aside from writing a textbook in my own style, there is really nothing I can tell you in a lengthy discussion that will make the concepts any less gruesome. Unfortunately, this is just the nature of most courses in the physical sciences. It is a conscious decision on my part to use the discussion material in order to leave you lots of hints about the concepts that I consider to be important for anyone completing a college level astronomy course.

Reading Comprehension Quiz: There is a reading comprehension quiz for each lesson. You will be able to evaluate your knowledge of each lesson by grading these exercises and looking up the answer to each question you missed. Because we cover such a great amount of material in this course, I feel strongly that it will better help you study for the exams if the reading comprehension quizzes are grouped together at the end of each lesson. At times, you will find that the questions are not in the same order as they are presented in a chapter or group of chapters from the textbook. This is also to help get you accustomed to the wide variety of questions that you will be asked on the exams.

These quizzes are included to test your understanding of what you read. They do not count towards your grade and they don’t necessarily reflect what you will be tested on. But if you can do well on these quizzes, odds are you understood what you read well enough to do well on the exams. It is important to learn the new vocabulary of astrophysics so that you are not intimidated by the words alone.

Observation Projects: This portion allows you to do some "hands-on" astronomy. There are several suggestions for clear-sky observing projects as well as instructions provided for you in the Sky Observing Projects page. You must complete 4 of them and submit them as a portfolio before you take the final exam.

Sharing Your Knowledge Options: This portion of the lesson includes ideas for how you can share what you have learned in that lesson with those around you. As an assignment for the course, you must complete a minimum of six of these Sharing Your Knowledge activities and submit a paper describing what you did. It is important to note that these assignments are not book reports. You are asked to report on how you have shared your knowledge of a subject. This will be discussed further in the Assignments and Submissions section.

Study Guide: The purpose of this section of the lessons is to provide you with a basic summary of the key words and ideas from that section of the course. If you can look at those terms and feel comfortable with the ideas behind them, that will be a good indication that you have successfully understood the material covered in that lesson. I recommend using this section to help review and study for the final exam.

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I cannot stress enough the scope of the material for this course. I suspect that you will find it fascinating, exasperating, and enjoyable; though I realize that this is a pretty strange combination. Since your topic for this course is the Universe, you will find that you must acquire a basic understanding of several hundred terms and processes that are probably now unfamiliar.

Online Assessments

You will complete and submit these assignments online.

Assignments: Four times during the course you will submit multiple-choice assignments. As I’ve mentioned, you will likely see these questions again. All of the questions in the course will be of the multiple-choice or matching variety. My goal is to make sure that by the time you take the final exam, you will have seen all of the concepts before and there will be no surprises. In fact, many of the questions on the exam will only be changed superficially from what you have seen in previous lessons, and many other questions will be exactly as you have seen in previous lessons and submissions.

Mini-Exams: As you complete this course, you will have the opportunity to complete fifteen un-proctored, computer-graded mini-exams that will provide you with a series of questions that are similar to what you will find on the final exam. Your ten highest scores on the fifteen mini-exams will count for a total of 20 percent of your final grade. The questions on the mini-exams, along with your four assignments, will provide an excellent resource for you to use as you complete this course and prepare for the final exam. I have written these questions to teach you the new concepts and vocabulary that you should master as you complete this descriptive astronomy course.

Note: each mini-exam must be completed before you can continue on in the course.


These written assignments will all be part of a portfolio that you build as you work through the course.

Observation Project Reports: You will need to complete four observation projects to receive full credit for your portfolio. I have given you plenty of choices in the Sky Observing Projects page that follows the syllabus. At least two of the projects must be from the “clear-sky” selections.

You will need to decide on your observing projects early in the course. I think the best time to start these projects is in lesson 2. I think it is easy to complete some basic observing projects but I always have some students decide they are not going to do projects. You need to realize that not completing the projects means giving up an easy 8 percent of the total points for the course. It is not possible to get an A in this class if you do not do the observing projects.

Sharing Your Knowledge Reports: I have included a “Sharing Your Knowledge” assignment in each of the 23 regular lessons. These are designed to get you thinking like an astronomer and teaching others about these ideas. It is also a good way to solidify these relevant, often new concepts in your mind. As part of your final portfolio, you will be expected to write about what you have learned from six of these experiences. When saying this is a writing assignment, I want it to be clear that I am not expecting a formal, book report-type of paper from you. Rather, I want you to explain what you have learned and what your teaching experience was in completing the Sharing Your Knowledge assignment with another person.

Self-Evaluation: You will also be required to submit a self-evaluation with your final portfolio. In this self-evaluation you should give yourself a score out of fifty points based on how you feel you did throughout this course. Let me emphasize that you are expected to provide a score out of 50 points—not a percentage, and not a letter grade. Along with this score, your self-evaluation should also include a short, one-page report that describes your effort in this course, why you feel you deserve the score you gave yourself, what you learned, what you enjoyed, what went well, what went bad, and so forth.

Formatting Your Portfolio of Written Assignments

For some of your observation projects, you will need to scan in your drawings, or otherwise capture them digitally, and then combine them in your portfolio file.

To make sure that I can open and read your portfolio, please save all of your assignments in a single Word .DOC or .DOCX file.

Use the course number, your first and last name, and the assignment name for the filename. For example, PHSCS127_MikeJoner_Portfolio.docx.

Note: This assignment portfolio must be submitted in lesson 25, before you request the final exam. I think my system is really fair because only 30 percent of your grade is based directly on a formal exam. Note that the projects and papers are required to complete this course. You will be allowed to turn in blank assignments. However, giving up 20 percent of the total possible points for the course will absolutely lower your final course grade to a level that will not be pleasing. Finally, if I find projects or reports that are just copies of materials from some Internet site, I will issue a failing grade for the course.

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Final Exam

At the end of the course, you will be tested on all of the material you have covered in a comprehensive final examination. This exam includes 150 matching and multiple-choice questions in two parts.

Multiple-choice questions: This section consists of multiple-choice questions selected from previous assignments and mini-exam questions. The final exam questions will be mixed up a bit, but will essentially be the same as questions you have already experienced.

Constellation identification: This matching section tests your ability to recognize the bright stars and constellations. This constellation section is the same one given to all students in the on-campus class and is worth 10 percent of your final grade. To prepare for the constellation identification section, look at your star maps and learn how to recognize star patterns. You will be asked to identify constellations and stars, but rest assured that you will only be tested on the stars and constellations that are on your map.

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Grading Procedures

Two lessons in the syllabus are roughly equivalent to one week of work in the on-campus class. Here are the grading percentages for each assignment and exam:

Assignment/Exam Value
Assignment 1 3%
Assignment 2 3%
Assignment 3 3%
Assignment 4 6%
10 best scores out of 15 mini-exams 20%
4 Observing Projects
6 Sharing Your Knowledge
1 Self Evaluation
Final Exam:
Constellation Identification
Multiple-choice Questions

The grades you receive on the four assignments count as 15 percent of your grade. Each of the assignments is labeled with a value. The last assignment you submit is worth more than the others because it is a comprehensive review for the final exam.

Your best ten scores from the fifteen mini-exams you will take throughout the course will be worth a total of 20 percent of the course grade.

The constellation-identification questions will be worth 10 percent of the overall course grade.

The multiple-choice questions on the final exam will be worth 30 percent of the course grade.

The remaining 25 percent of your grade is based on your portfolio that includes the observing projects, the papers you will submit about the “Sharing Your Knowledge” assignments, and the self-evaluation. That 20 percent is divided as follows: the four observing projects you will submit are worth 8 percent of your grade, the six “Sharing Your Knowledge” papers will count for 12 percent of your grade, and the Self-evaluation is the final 5 percent of your grade.

Grade Scale

The grading scale is as follows:

A (100-93)
A- (92-90)
B+ (89-87)
B (86-83)
B- (82-80)
C+ (79-77)
C (76-63)
C- (62-60)
D+ (59-57)
D (56-53)
D- (52-50)
E (fail) (49 and below)

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Copyright Notice

The materials used in connection with this online course are only for the use of students enrolled in this course for purposes associated with this course and may not be retained or further disseminated. Any copying or further dissemination of these materials may be subject to applicable U.S. Copyright Laws. For questions or more information, please visit the BYU Copyright Licensing Office website.

“Members of the BYU community who willfully disregard this Copyright Policy or the BYU Copyright Guidelines place themselves individually at risk of legal action and may incur personal liability for their conduct. The unauthorized use or distribution of copyrighted material, including unauthorized peer-to-peer file sharing, may subject individuals to civil and criminal liabilities, including actual and statutory damages, costs and fees of litigation, fines, and imprisonment

Violations of the Copyright Policy may result in university disciplinary action including termination of university enrollment or employment.” (Emphasis added. Excerpt taken from the BYU Copyright Policy)

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University Policy - Title IX Statement

Preventing & Responding to Sexual Misconduct

In accordance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Brigham Young University prohibits unlawful sex discrimination against any participant in its education programs or activities. The university also prohibits sexual harassment—including sexual violence—committed by or against students, university employees, and visitors to campus. As outlined in university policy, sexual harassment, dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking are considered forms of "Sexual Misconduct" prohibited by the university.

University policy requires all university employees in a teaching, managerial, or supervisory role to report all incidents of Sexual Misconduct that come to their attention in any way, including but not limited to face-to-face conversations, a written class assignment or paper, class discussion, email, text, or social media post. Incidents of Sexual Misconduct should be reported to the Title IX Coordinator at t9coordinator@byu.edu or (801) 422-8692. Reports may also be submitted through EthicsPoint at https://titleix.byu.edu/report or 1-888-238-1062 (24-hours a day).

BYU offers confidential resources for those affected by Sexual Misconduct, including the university’s Victim Advocate, as well as a number of non-confidential resources and services that may be helpful. Additional information about Title IX, the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy, reporting requirements, and resources can be found at http://titleix.byu.edu or by contacting the university’s Title IX Coordinator.

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Accessibility Notice

BYU is committed to providing a working and learning atmosphere which reasonably accommodates persons with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to participate in BYU's programs and activities. In this spirit, BYU Independent Study aspires to improve web accessibility for users. While not required by law, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Levels A and AA provide a wide range of helpful recommendations to make Web content more accessible. BYU Independent Study strives to apply WCAG 2.0 recommendations where feasible, but may deviate from any recommendations that would result in an undue hardship to BYU Independent Study or alterations to program and course content and objectives. If you have questions about accessibility, or if you need to report problems with any accessibility features please see our Accessibilities and Accommodations Web Page.

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Course Policies

These policies are specific to this course. For additional information about general policies, please refer to Independent Study Course Policies page.


4 computer-graded assignments; 15 mini-exams; portfolio containing 4 observation project reports, 6 Sharing Your Knowledge reports, and 1 self-evaluation; no paid resubmissions.

Note: each mini-exam must be completed before students can continue on in the course.


1 final exam (multiple-choice and constellation-identification questions), you may retake it once for a fee; you must pass the final exam to earn credit for the course.

Retake an exam for a fee.

Getting Help

Please use the help menu in this course to contact Independent Study or your instructor. You can find a list of free tutors available to BYU Independent Study students on the Free Tutoring Services website.

Note: The Harold B. Lee Library website provides a number of online resources and librarians are available via phone, chat, and email to answer questions about library-related issues.

Inappropriate Use of Course Content

All course materials (e.g., outlines, handouts, syllabi, exams, quizzes, media, lecture content, audio and video recordings, etc.) are proprietary. Students are prohibited from posting or selling any such course materials without the express written permission of BYU Independent Study. To do so is a violation of the Brigham Young University Honor Code.

Copyright © 2016 Brigham Young University. All rights reserved.

Published by the
Department of Independent Study
Division of Continuing Education
Brigham Young University
120 MORC
Provo, Utah 84602-1514