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Continuing Your Astronomy Education Online


By Chris Morisette


With HAS hosting such great monthly presentations why take an astronomy class?  It was precisely because of these monthly presentations I sought to learn more.  I’ve been intrigued by the subjects but felt I needed a better understanding of topics like stellar evolution, solar system formation, and exoplanets to fully appreciate what was going on.  Also, as I began to participate in public outreach events the need for more knowledge only increased. 

Online learning was a natural solution.  The classes are taught by professors at top schools, the topics covered were exactly what I was looking for, in many cases tuition is free, and everything could be done from the comfort of home. 

Over the last year I took the following through Coursera:

  • “The Evolving Universe” (Caltech)
  • “Confronting the Big Questions: Highlights of Modern Astronomy” (University of Rochester)
  • “Exploring Time and Space” (University of Arizona)

What follows is a review of each class.  The “Course Summary Table” at the end of the article provides more detail about the syllabus, duration, cost, and lecture materials available.

If you’re interested in continuing your astronomy education online these reviews should help you get started.


The Evolving Universe -

This offering provides a broad and deep coverage of intermediate level astronomy.  And it’s no surprise that a class offered by Caltech has a very quantitative bent.  A fair amount of the lecture and quiz material involved mathematical derivations and computations.  While I did appreciate the technical challenges, getting knee deep in math sometimes made me lose sight of the big picture.  The duration of the course was long but lectures were available in bite-sized chunks so you could start and stop when time permitted.  The presentation style was “classic college lecture” and was somewhat dry.  However, all the lecture slides were available for download so you could go back and review a topic if you got lost.  I did take this one for credit.  The quizzes and tests were difficult, but I passed and now have a certificate from Caltech to hang on my wall!

This was a tedious but good course.  My advice is to take this one after you have a decent grasp of intermediate level astronomy and want to dive into more detail. 

Overall Rating: 3 of 5 Stars 


Confronting the Big Questions: Highlights of Modern Astronomy -

“Confronting the Big Questions” offered the same broad range of topics but not at the same depth as “The Evolving Universe”.  However, with an engaging instructor and a shorter duration this class was a winner.  Material was covered using straightforward examples and analogies, which helped me get my head around complex concepts.  I loved the instructor’s reference to the material that formed our planets, asteroids, and comets as “construction debris”.  It was a nice shorthand way to describe the origin and nature of the stuff that created our world.  In general, complicated topics were effectively explained.  And I really appreciated the instructor’s delivery style, which was very staccato and to the point.  He moved along at a smart pace.  The only drawback was that the lecture material downloads were limited.  Only Week 1 was available.  I didn’t take any of the quizzes nor did I do any of the exercises so I can’t offer any opinion here.

This was an excellent course.  A very good survey of topics delivered at an efficient pace.

 Overall Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars 


Exploring Time and Space -

“Exploring Time and Space” offers the same breadth and depth of topics as the other two entrants plus you’ll get additional information about telescope types, telescope fabrication, and astrobiology.  And, like “Confronting the Big Questions”, the approach was more qualitative in nature, i.e. mathematics was kept to a minimum.  Unfortunately, the delivery of this course was not the best.  The lecture delivery was on a par with that of “The Evolving Universe”, but there was an all too frequent use of “pop culture”, which consumed a lot time.  Clips of Monty Python, the X-Files, or a “Carl Sagan rap” didn’t help me learn.  And some of these clips were repeated, which explains why the lecture duration was way too long.  On the positive side all the lecture slides were available for download so you could skip the fluff and go right to the meat.  Again, I didn’t take any of the quizzes nor did I do any of the exercises so I can’t offer any opinion here either.

If entertainment helps you learn then “Exploring Time and Space” might be worth a look.  Otherwise I’d steer clear of this one.

Overall Rating: 2 of 5 Stars



Taking an intermediate level astronomy class online can provide a great foundation for understanding advanced HAS presentations and for helping you answer those tricky questions posed by friends, family, and people new to astronomy.  In addition, you’ll also get exposed to new topics, which will only fuel your desire to learn more.

If you are looking for options:

  • “Confronting the Big Questions – Highlights of Modern Astronomy” is a perfect place to start
  • “The Evolving Universe” is a good follow-up for taking your understanding to a deeper level
  • “Exploring Space and Time” is probably one to avoid

That’s it for now… so until next time keep on learning and stargazing!



Course Summary Table



Total Lecture Duration

Lecture Slides


The Evolving Universe

  • Distances and Scales/Kepler's Laws/Newton's Laws/Dynamics of the Solar System/Celestial Coordinate Systems/Earth Rotation
  • Telescopes/Non-Electromagnetic Observations/ Spectroscopy/Blackbody Radiation
  • Interstellar Medium/Star Formation/Formation of Planetary Systems/Formation of the Solar System/Planetary Atmospheres
  • Life in the Universe/Stellar Structure/The Sun
  • The HR Diagram/The Main Sequence/Stellar Evolution/White Dwarfs/Supernova Types
  • Neutron Stars/Pulsars/ Black Holes/Gamma-Ray Bursts/Galaxy Properties/Galaxy Rotation/Dark Halo/Local Group of Galaxies
  • Galaxy Interactions and Mergers/Quantifying Galaxy Properties/Galaxy Evolution/Cosmic Web
  • Large Structure/The Evolution of Clustering/Structure Formation/Galaxy Clusters/Quasars/Active Galactic Nuclei
  • Cosmological Models and Distances/Cosmic Microwave Background/The Big Bang/Inflation
  • Universe Scale and Age/Matter and Energy Contents of the Universe/Gravitational Lensing/Dark Matter and Energy

14 hours – 35 minutes

All Available for Download

Free or $49 for Credit/Certificate

Confronting the Big Questions: Highlights of Modern Astronomy

  • Solar System/Exoplanets/Astrobiology
  • Stars/Stellar Evolution/White Dwarfs/Supernovas/Neutron Stars/Special and General Relativity/Blackholes
  • Galaxies/Distances/Interstellar Medium/Disk, Halo, Bulge/Active Galactic Nucleus/Galaxy Groups and Clusters
  • Big Bang/Particle Physics/Dark Matter/Large Scale Structure/Quasars/Dark Energy/Multiverse

7 hours – 14 minutes

Week 1 Only Available for Download

Free or $49 for Credit/Certificate

Exploring Time and Space

  • Science and History
  • The Night Sky
  • The Tools of Astronomy
  • Matter and Radiation
  • The Solar System
  • Exoplanets
  • Star Birth and Death
  • Galaxies
  • Cosmology
  • Life in the Universe

21 hours – 33 minutes

All Available for Download

Free or $49 for Credit/Certificate

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