We are so lucky to have a spiffy new telescope that has captured the public imagination over the summer!
I used the first group of five images (one is really a spectrum, but for simplicity, I’ll refer to them all as images here!) to introduce the course to my Astro101 students this semester, and it was a hit! Many of them had heard about the images over the summer, and a few had seen them. But most of them, while they might have understood a particular image, hadn’t put the grouping together to ‘see the bigger picture’, which is that these five images span the history of the universe from shortly after it began to now.
I presented them in this order:
SMACS 0723 (the Webb Deep Field) I used this image to introduce the concept of the Universe as a whole object of a certain age, which has an observable size limited by that age. I introduced a number of questions that I know my students would have, and promised to answer them once they’ve learned a few more things along the way…
Stephan’s Quintet This visual grouping of five galaxies includes a number of the signatures of interactions between galaxies, such as starburst regions and tidal tails. It’s a handy image to show to introduce the idea that the universe is not static, that even galaxies evolve over time.
Carina Nebula A nearby star-forming region starts to bring the discussion closer to home in both space and time. I’m often bemused to find that student do not know that stars are not eternal. This is a great image to show to talk about how stars form, and how we build that story from pictures like these.
Southern Ring Nebula Stars are “born”, and they also “die”. When they die, they enrich the galaxy with the elements that form new stars, new planets, and sometimes people.
WASP-96 b I found a nice segue from the Southern Ring Nebula (all about elements in the galaxy) to detecting those elements using a spectrum like this one! Later in the course, they will find out more about how to read such an image, but for now it’s enough to be absolutely staggered that it’s possible to know that there is water in the atmosphere of a planet that orbits another star!
I’ll give a bit more information and background on these images in the next few blog posts, but presenting them on Day One, as a sort of “movie trailer” for the course turned out to be a great way to inspire students to ask questions, get talking, and be motivated to continue on.
I finished with a sketching activity which I have picked up and modified from a workshop I attended years ago. I show the students the image, and then have them sketch it 3 times: once in 15 seconds, once in 30 seconds, and once in three minutes. By the third time they sketch the object, they are beginning to see things that they didn’t see in the first few seconds. This emphasizes that sometimes they just need to slow down to understand or appreciate the material—a lesson I am always trying to teach!