A Concept Oriented Approach

by Nate McCrady & Emily Rice

Available now via Pearson Collections

Instructors can select from 40 labs (at a cost of $2.50 per lab to the bookstore, for a typical cost of $25 per semester) covering topics from quantitative reasoning, Earth’s perspective, tools for astronomical observations, Solar System & exoplanets, stars, galaxies, and cosmology. The labs are primarily designed for use in general education courses for non-science majors and require only high school algebra. Students are led through investigations of a concept by a series of questions and are given the opportunity to examine, interact, and experiment with phenomena that are integral to astronomy while developing scientific process skills. The labs use a conversational, Socratic approach and emphasize simple, inexpensive equipment.

This website features the annotated Table of Contents with lab titles and brief descriptions, Sequences for example courses, sources for Equipment, instructor Testimonials, and Corrections.

Contact your Pearson sales representative for a review copy.

Instructor’s Notes, with a comprehensive introduction and narrative guide to each lab, are available from Pearson.


Table of Contents

The Instructor’s Notes available from Pearson contain an equipment list and detailed narrative for each lab.

Labs marked with ** are most readily adaptable as shorter activities for larger lecture classes.

Quantitative Reasoning (Two labs & four mini-labs, no equipment necessary)
Students review the relevant mathematics used in the labs and have the opportunity to practice and apply their quantitative reasoning skills.
     Do your students need more support in mathematics? See our recommended resource!

Quantitative Reasoning: A Trip to Mars**
Students apply quantitative reasoning skills by considering a human spaceflight mission to Mars.

Quantitative Reasoning: Exploring Nearby Stars**
Students apply quantitative reasoning skills by considering a human spaceflight mission to Alpha Centauri.

Exponents and Scientific Notation**
Students practice using exponents and scientific notation to understand the Universe.

Ratios, Proportionalities, and Units**
Students use ratios, proportionalities, and unit analysis to simplify equations and solve problems.

Creating and Interpreting Plots**
Students practice creating and interpreting plots in the context of understanding the Solar System.

Estimation and Uncertainty**
Students practice quantitative skills related to estimation and uncertainty.

Earth’s Perspective (Six labs)
Students explore the geometry and motion of the Solar System and determine their effect on observations from Earth.

Phases of the Moon**
Students investigate how the observed phase of the Moon depends on the orientation of Earth and Sun.

The North Star and Precession**
Students explore the astronomical significance of the North Star.

What Causes the Seasons: Earth’s Tilted Axis
Students explore how the motions of Earth relative to the Sun cause seasonal variations on Earth.

What’s in a Day: Solar and Sidereal Rotation**
Students explore timekeeping based on Earth’s rotation and revolution and compare to Mercury.

Planetary Motions and the Night Sky**
Students infer the structure of the Solar System based on simple observations.

Observatories Around the World**
Students investigate the criteria used to select observatory locations on Earth.

Tools for Astronomical Observations (Four labs)
Students investigate physical phenomena and observational techniques that are the essential tools for understanding astronomical objects.

Light, Color, and Filters
Students investigate the nature of colored light and the function of filters.

Students investigate the dispersion of light and interpret spectra to determine the composition of an object.

Atoms and Electrons: Absorption and Emission**
Students explore the link between atomic energy levels and the observed spectrum of a star.

Images and Telescopes
Students investigate the structure of a modern research telescope and the functions of its optical parts.

Solar System and Exoplanets (Seven labs)
Students explore the motions and physical properties of the Sun and planets in our Solar System and investigate the detection of exoplanetary systems.

Rotation of the Sun**
Students investigate the rotation of the Sun and how it is observed from Earth.

Solar Energy and the Habitable Zone**
Students explore how solar energy determines the location and size of the habitable zone around the Sun.

Bulk Density and Planet Composition**
Students investigate how to infer the interior composition a planet based on its bulk density.

Gravity and Orbital Motion
Students use a gravity simulator to investigate orbital motion and Kepler’s Laws.

Gravitational Interactions in the Solar System
Students explore the gravitational influence of Jupiter on smaller objects in our planetary system.

Radial Velocity and Exoplanets: The Doppler Technique
Students investigate the indirect detection of exoplanets using the observed reflex motion of their host stars.

Photometry and Exoplanets: The Transit Technique
Students explore the indirect detection of exoplanets using photometric observations of stars.

Stars (Six labs)
Students examine the implications of thermal radiation and nuclear fusion on the properties of stars and stellar evolution and investigate the remnants of high mass stars: pulsars and black holes.

Colors of Stars
Students investigate what the color of a star reveals about its physical properties.

Stars and the H-R Diagram**
Students investigate the radius, luminosity and temperature of stars using the H-R diagram.

Star Clusters and the Ages of Stars**
Students apply stellar evolution and the H-R diagram to determine the ages of stars in clusters.

Nuclear Fusion and Energy in Stars**
Students explore the creation of energy and heavy elements in stars.

Pulsars: Beams and Rotation
Students create a model of a pulsar and use it to understand observations of pulsars over time.

Gravity and Black Holes**
Students investigate the exotic phenomena caused by the enormous gravity near a black hole.

Galaxies (Five labs)
Students investigate the properties of the Milky Way and other galaxies by applying concepts introduced in previous activities, including light, colors, spectra, mass, gravity, and motion.

The Effects of Interstellar Dust on Starlight
Students explore how dust affects starlight passing through interstellar space.

Mapping the Milky Way Galaxy**
Students interpret observations to infer the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy and our location in it.

Spiral Arms and Star Formation**
Students explore how the properties and motions of stars create the observed patterns in spiral galaxies.

Spiral Galaxies and Dark Matter**
Students investigate how the motions of spiral galaxies provide evidence for dark matter.

Evolution of Galaxies**
Students investigate the observational evidence for our understanding of galaxy evolution.

Cosmology (Six labs)
Students analyze the formation, structure, expansion and early history of the Universe and explore the advantages and limitations of light-based astronomical observations.

The Hubble Law and Expansion of the Universe**
Students investigate the concept of expansion and consider how we can determine the age of the Universe.

Expansion and the Age of the Universe**
Students apply the Hubble Law to determine the age of the Universe.

Accelerating Expansion of the Universe**
Students explore the history of expansion using the Hubble Law and distances to far-away supernovae.

Lookback Time and the Evolving Universe**
Students explore implications of the finite speed of light and interpret observations of the distant Universe.

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation**
Students examine the background radiation and what it implies about conditions in the early Universe.

First Three Minutes**
Students explore what the relative proportions of H and He reveal about the first moments in the Universe.



See the Instructor’s Notes for more detailed information about required & optional equipment. Some links use an Amazon Affiliate ID.

Example Course Sequences

Selected labs for typical one semester introductory astronomy courses.

Instructor Testimonials

Prof. Steven Rodney (University of South Carolina):

I love the flexibility of this lab book. We have multiple instructors teaching the same class in different ways, and we can each customize our course by building a collection of lab activities to suit. The labs are reliably well-constructed and pitched at just the right level for an intro astronomy course of primarily non-STEM majors. The students are challenged, but not overwhelmed, and the activity design encourages our TAs to be engaged supporters instead of lecturing in the lab room. I recently restructured my intro astronomy course to focus on the search for life in the universe, and this collection had plenty of lab activities that fit in really nicely with my new course plan.

Blog post by Prof. Pauline Barmby (University of Western Ontario)

Prof. Nicole Gugliucci (Saint Anselm College):

Astronomy Labs by McCrady and Rice are absolutely essential for my Introduction to Astronomy course. Though I love getting the students out under the stars and using telescopes, all too often the weather doesn't cooperate! These labs are well designed to explore important astrophysical concepts using the most basic materials and tie in very closely to the course material we cover during the day. Each exercise is designed to take a student through a series of concepts, and its step-by-step framework makes it easy to follow along, but challenging enough to address students' preconceptions. Some of the labs feature simulations that can be found for free online, and those are wonderful in our new smart classroom with shared big screens. You can pick and choose which labs to include to match your curriculum, and it saves the students money at the bookstore. I haven't yet broken the exercises into smaller chunks for active learning in our short classes, but I look forward to trying that in the future. 


Some corrections are in individual lab guides in the Instructor’s Notes, and we provide an updated list here.

L17: Rotation of the Sun

  • Last page of the lab should read “Use a different color to label 0° longitude on the Sun for this second position of the Earth.”

  • The last image of the Sun is from the wrong date: find a 20 May 2013 image here.

L32: Spiral Arms & Star Formation

  •     Pinwheel illustration should have different patterns on each quadrant (students can add this themselves).

Contact the authors with questions, comments, or testimonials.

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Do your students need more help with mathematics and quantitative reasoning? We recommend:

A Student's Guide to the Mathematics of Astronomy, by Daniel Fleisch and Julia Kregenow

Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)

This book is ideal for non-science majors taking introductory astronomy courses. The authors have taught many thousands of students over the years in Intro Astronomy courses -- both large and small classes, at large and small universities, at public and private institutions. They know firsthand what topics students most frequently find troublesome, and they address these using a plain-language approach. Topics include: unit conversions, quantitative reasoning, rate problems, exponents, scientific notation, the law of gravity, graphs, spectra of light, parallax, inverse square laws, the H-R diagram, density, escape speed, and Hubble's Law, among others. Dozens of fully worked examples and over 150 exercises and homework problems help readers get to grips with the concepts in each chapter. The accompanying website features a host of supporting materials, including interactive solutions for every exercise and problem in the text and a series of videos in which the authors explain the important concepts of every section of the book: