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Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS)
Undergraduate Outcomes Assessment
Updated 2/12/2003

Activity in 2001-02


The Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) is devoted to teaching and research in astrophysics, planetary sciences, and space physics. Sharing a common scientific heritage of applied physical studies in the space sciences, these areas have a common APS core curriculum and look to the same major national funding sources (NASA, NSF, DOE). The APS department takes pride in being a major CU research unit with a commitment to science education. APS faculty have been involved in many campus initiatives, ranging from the Arts & Sciences core curriculum to innovations and educational uses of information technology (IT). All 21 rostered faculty members have active research programs with a large amount of sponsored funding ($14.2M in 2000-2001).

All APS fall/spring courses are taught by faculty members; our TAs are used in support roles, such as leading laboratories, assisting with lectures and telescope sessions, and holding office hours. In APS general education classes, our students are brought face-to-face with leading space scientists who are active in research and often are the authors of national textbooks in the field.

Both the Internal Review Committee (IRC) and the External Review Committee (ERC) found that the APS undergraduate program was strong. They were astonished at the rapid growth in our new major, from zero to 92 majors in the span of two years. Our major is now one of the top undergraduate degree programs in Astronomy and Astrophysics in the U.S. It evidently fills a long-needed demand among the CU undergraduates in the physical sciences (and in Engineering, where APS provides a popular minor degree and second-degree option).

However, the ERC did express some uneasiness about the extremely rapid expansion of our undergraduate program over the last two years. Their sub-section in their report was titled "The Undergraduate Program: A Victim of its Success?" In their report, they go on to state that "Some of our concerns have been laid to rest". Their continuing worries center around the lack of APS faculty resources to teach the ambitious curriculum, offer research opportunities, and provide one-on-one advising. They also express concern over the lack of contiguous space for APS faculty and students. All of these issues were identified in our Self-Study report and are goals of our department.

Some relevant quotes from the External Review Committee report are given below:

"We remain concerned that the new program may strain all resources of the department, and in ways yet to be understood. The bulge of of majors has not yet moved through all four years, and indeed it may take several years after that to judge the success of the program, as the status of recent graduates is an excellent empirical metric."
"Several contributing factors make strengthening the faculty complement in APS one of our highest priority recommendations. First is the need for faculty support of the undergraduate program discussed above."
"The distinct laboratories that comprise the department are in themselves excellent, and at the core of the intellectual strength of APS. Nevertheless, the particularly stark division of faculty, postdocs, and students into these apparently physically and administratively disjoint laboratories is in our experience somewhat unusual and inhibits cohesiveness."


APS has 21 rostered faculty, 45-50 graduate students, and a new undergrad major (B.A. in Astronomy) with 92 majors (fall 2002). We have 3 research faculty and 20-25 affiliated faculty from CU institutes (JILA, LASP), centers (CASA), and Boulder labs (NCAR/HAO, Southwest Research Institute). Statistics on our undergraduate program were recently compiled for the APS Self-Study and Program Review (2001-2002).


APS is a major contributor to CU general educational programs, with 12 regularly taught courses on the A&S core curriculum. Our 1000- level General Astronomy courses currently reach approximately 1600 students per semester, while our non-major 2000-level courses on Modern Cosmology, Black Holes, Ancient Astronomies, and Extra- Terrestrial Life always fill to capacity (70-150 students each). APS now generates over 12,000 student credit hours per year, or 500 SCH/FTE/yr, one of the best productivities in the Natural Sciences.

Our Astronomy major core-sequence, ASTR 1030/1040 (Accelerated Introductory Astronomy) has recently expanded by 40%, requiring us to open new lab sections. Many of these courses are being taught with innovative curricular techniques and make use of our unique facilities at Fiske Planetarium and Sommers-Bausch Observatory (SBO).

Acting on the 1995 Program Review recommendation, APS developed a new undergraduate degree program. Effective June 2000, we offer a B.A. degree in Astronomy with two tracks (General Astronomy and Astrophysics/Physics). Requirements are listed at As of fall 2002, we have 92 registered majors and 27 minors. Our degree will likely increase to around 100 majors, as we fill out students in all four years. This rate of growth is more rapid than we proposed to the CCHE and Regents for our new degree program.

Our stated rationale for a B.A. in Astronomy is to provide CU undergraduates with educational and research opportunities available in a nationally renowned research department. As a result, we can provide opportunities for student involvement with active faculty researchers in the space sciences, including senior (Honors) theses. Our majors receive career advising and information on research opportunities from a CU-supported professional advisor for Physics/Astronomy, Mark Berge, and from a group of 8 APS faculty members.


According to our degree proposal to CCHE, the specific goals for the APS major are:

  • To provide theoretical and practical knowledge of astrophysics and planetary sciences at a level comparable to the best programs at U.S. public institutions. The APS Department is one of the only programs that combines both astrophysics and planetary science. As a result, we avoid duplications of overlapping curriculum and provide a unified view of space sciences. Through these efficiencies, we provide our students with detailed current understanding of topics ranging from solar system formation and comparative planetology to stellar and galactic astronomy and cosmology.
  • To provide "hands-on" experience with telescopes, optics, instrumentation, computer image processing and data modeling. These skills are useful for students wishing to pursue graduate degrees or careers in aerospace, technical, or computer industries. Integration of research and technical experience with coursework is consistent with the educational recommendations in the Boyer Commission report.
  • To provide tracks within the degree to best serve the diverse needs of students: (1) the General Astronomy track (for careers in space science, science education, science writing, science policy); (2) the Astrophysics/Physics track (for students wishing to pursue graduate work in the physical sciences, engineering, or computer science).

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Last revision 02/19/03

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