That was the subject line in an email I received recently. I thought, “Here we go again, someone asking about this area of pseudoscience.” But it was actually worse.
A student was inquiring about registering for my fall-semester introductory astronomy course. The word “astrology” appeared three more times in the body of the message. Groan.
How could someone get to be a college sophomore and not know the difference between the pseudoscience of astrology and the real science of astronomy?
In the online registration system, my class appears full so the student needs my permission to enroll.
But my class is not at maximum capacity because I am doing an experiment. I realized several years ago that the fall-semester astronomy class, the first of the two-semester sequence, always fills with upperclassmen during the preregistration period in the spring. We reserved a few seats in each section for incoming majors, both freshmen and transfers, whom we do not yet know are coming to Appalachian State. But very few incoming non-major freshmen would be able to get a seat.
If you take an astronomy course as a junior or senior, it’s really too late to major, no matter how interested you are, unless you are on the 6-year plan. You need to have started physics and calculus course sequences early, too. However, those students who get excited about the stars early enough can do it. About half of our physics/astronomy majors come in this back-door route to the major.
Could it be that something as trivial as preregistration procedures at universities across the country are a major bottleneck in the path to a career in science?
So I started holding back seats, eventually 40 of my 60 seats, and releasing them as students came in for freshmen orientation sessions during the summer. Later, on the first day of class, I ask for a show of hands of freshmen, say “you’re welcome,” and explain how they were able to get in and why I want them in class. (I also ask the class to raise hands if they are majoring in what their parents advised and tell them not to do that. They have to find their own passion.)
Is it working? It is still a bit early to tell, but we have indeed picked up some majors from these freshmen cohorts. I’ll get a couple more years of data and then analyze the results.
Should I let “Astrology” into my class? I guess I will have to read my horoscope. Just kidding.
Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor, and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.