Astronomy Department gives individual attention to majors

Photo By: Jonah Bleckner
Photo By: Jonah Bleckner
Photo By: Jonah Bleckner

Some of the many things on which Vassar College prides itself are the small class sizes and individual attention it affords to students as a small liberal arts college. The Astronomy Department, with its two permanent professors and handful of majors in its senior class, stands out as one of the smallest and most hands-on departments.

The particular smallness of the classes enable students to form close relationships with faculty that might not be possible in other departments. “Coming to Vassar, what I wanted was to be able to get close to the professors, and even though we only have two professors, all of our professors are incredible,” said Nico Mongillo ’14.

Gagandeep Anand ’15 said this advantage is especially beneficial when it comes to upper-level courses. “The small class sizes lend really well to a lecture environment since that makes it easier to stop and ask questions,” said Anand.

That students also have access to talented professors that, according to Simon Patane ’15, more than makes up for Astronomy’s relatively small size. “It is probably one of Vassar’s smallest departments, but the two faculty who are in it now, Professor Debra Elmegreen and Professor Frederick Chromey, are both top notch and very well respected in their own fields, and that makes up for it,” said Patane.

Indeed, Professor Debra Elmegreen said, the Astronomy Department at Vassar is on par with other, larger programs at various other colleges. The selection of astronomy and physics at Vassar is not is not particularly different from what one would see in a larger department, so it more than adequately prepares students for further astronomical studies, she said.

However, being a part of a small department has its drawbacks. Students involved with larger astronomy programs have greater opportunities for more professional research as well as more access to equipment.

“Recognizing that we can’t offer students lots of different research like [other colleges] would, we can guide them through independent studies,” said Elmegreen.

She went on to explain that, to remedy the lack of professional research opportunities, twentyyears ago Vassar banded together with seven other colleges, Colgate, Haverford, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Wesleyan and Williams to form the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium. This consortium funds various projects and offers students the opportunity to apply to work over the summer at other schools within the consortium to have more diversity in their studies. Students involved with the department also have opportunities to work with students from other programs, even if they do not go themselves, such as Anand, who will spend the summer working with students from another astronomy program.

“The most important thing is not just to learn from the classroom, because that’s a very different thing than doing [hands-on research],” said Elmegreen. “[It is] personally most satisfying when they can do it for themselves.”

To graduate, astronomy majors must take five astronomy courses along with several physics courses.Elmegreen said this was because, at the undergraduate level, it is not necessary or ideal to take a large amount of astronomy courses, saying that some of the higher level ideas are better taught at graduate school.Physics forms a large basis of astronomy, particularly at the graduate level, and Elmegreen stressed the importance of student’s having a strong background in the material.

“[Students] need to know electromagnetism and mechanics to understand [astronomical] motions,” said Elmegreen. “We don’t require all the courses that a physics major takes, but the students that want to go on and become astronomy graduate students are effectively astronomy/physics double majors.”

Thus, the Physics and Astronomy Departments are closely together to ensure that students have ample opportunities to take classes. Because the Astronomy Department is so small, and the Physics Department is not much larger, professors have the ability to work together to plan courses around their students.

The flexibility of the Astronomy and Physics Departments is one of the things that helps to set it apart from other, larger departments and one thing that students find particularly beneficial.

Elmegreen explained that because there are so few professors, they have the ability to work their schedules around those of their students.

“I’ve actually had classes scheduled around me,” said Mongillo.

Elmegreen said, “We don’t have an issue with overlapping courses. If a Quantum course meets when my Interstellar Medium course meets, then we will change. They’re not offered the same time if we know a major needs to be in two classes.” However, working with other departments can be difficult. “We just can’t coordinate with all the possibilities,” said Elmegreen. “Sometimes there can be a conflict outside the department.”

Another problem the department can face is more from the perspective of the Dean’s office, which has rules about the minimum sizes classes need to be. When only a few students registered for one of Elmegreen’s courses, she said she thought there was a possibility she would have to cancel it, but a student needed it for his major. While enough students ultimately joined the course and it was offered, there was never any any concern that he would be unable to finish his degree; the department offers options in independent study, regardless of the fact that professors do not get credit for teaching independent study.

In any case, the department consistently advocates for its students so they can get the best astronomy education Vassar can provide.

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