This is the planning page for the Observational astronomy learning project. The content that you see here was originally written as part of mikeu's learning blog but it has been copied here to encourage others to participate in the development of this project. This page is also something of an experiment in collaborative authoring. The intent is that all content on this page should be modified and expanded. As a first step we need to strip out the first person references in the text below, and reformat the sections so that it is more readable. Please incorporate your ideas directly into the sections, rather than following a talk page format of indented comments. Avoid signing text that you include here, as that discourages others from editing the text and expanding on the ideas that are contributed. Be Bold!
The basic ideas is to learn astronomy by participating in a sort of virtual observatory. There are other virtual observatory learning activities. (For instance, the Hubble FITS Liberator.) One thing that will distinguish this learning project from others is that it is hosted on a wiki which will allow the students to interact in creating the lessons. It is not clear how that will play out or where it will lead, but the results will likely be interesting.
Eventually, it would be desirable to allow students to do "real" astronomy. Students usually learn by solving "toy problems" where the only goal is to learn, and the results of solving the problem are then only given to the teacher for the purpose of getting a grade. I'd like to give the participants original data to analyze such that their results are of some use to professional astronomers. This is similar to ongoing projects such as the American Association of Variable Star Observers in which amateur astronomers who own a telescope contribute observations which are then analyzed by professionals. (The National Science Foundation refers to people who do this as "citizen scientists.") However, most of these amateurs are working individually or in small groups that only include those who have reached a certain level where they have the experience and knowledge to make a contribution. Here, we are trying to create an environment where it is easier for someone with no background to get involved and walk them through that first, steep, part of the learning curve.
Citizen science projects
One example of a citizen science project is Stardust@home. It has a low threshold for getting involved and uses a slick tutorial and interface to train participants and get them started. However, this project is more busy work than a learning experience. The results make a valuable contribution to processing the science data but the only thing the person involved gains is a sense of satisfaction at being a part of the project. They really don't learn much about interstellar dust. The Astronomy Project here at Wikiversity is an experiment to determine how to create a more meaningful learning experience while doing real science.
A better example is the Systemic research collaboration which involves the public in analyzing radial velocity for stars to discover extrasolar planets. This involves using software to find a planetary orbit that best fits the data and then uploading the results to the systemic backend. There is also a blog where new discoveries are discussed. The Observational astronomy/Extrasolar planet activity has just been started to form a learning group here at Wikiversity to participate in the systemic collaboration.
Wikiversity does not yet have a policy for conducting Wikiversity:Research. There are, however, betawikiversity:Wikiversity:Research guidelines. Anyone creating content that involves research should follow the discussions as these policies are drafted.
The learning curve for doing astronomical data analysis is very steep for the uninitiated. For example, go through the short tutorial on astrometric calibration with Aladin to see the steps involved in processing a raw telescope image. Is it reasonable to expect someone with no background to go through a complicated process like this as part of a lesson?
There are a number of different software packages for manipulating and analyzing astronomical images. The first activity uses the Aladin Sky Atlas. It is a rather easy program to learn, it has a good search feature for retrieving images and allows for some basic analysis of the data. It is also free to use and runs on any computer that has Java installed. Some of the more advanced activities that are planned for this learning project might require the use of other software. This might get complicated for new users.
I'll start by creating some simple lessons that show how to use the software tools that astronomers use to analyze data. The main focus, at first, will be on learning basic concepts in astronomy while getting familiar with these tools. I hope that the Wikiversity community can help me learn how to implement the ideas that I have described.