Throwing out the Textbook (Part I)

(You can skip to Part II.)
Some of you might remember that this is nominally a blog about education. It’s time again to shunt aside all the personal and political things I like to blog about, and to instead post about my classes. I do this in part because school starts soon and I am still up a creek regarding one of my classes, and thought that the great wide Internet community might offer some ideas.

Here’s the situation: For the fifth semester I will be teaching “Space Science & Astrophysics”, a 16-week overview of the discipline intended for seniors at my prep school. Due to the vagaries of our curriculum, many if not most will be taking this course to complete their science requirement — and hence will not have taken regular HS physics beforehand. For the past two years I’ve used The Cosmic Perspective by Bennet, et al. (I’ve been using 4th edition but I see they’re up to 5th now.) I really liked the book, actually, and still think it’s a fantastic textbook for its audience … but its audience is not survey-level 12th graders many of whom have not had physics. As I observed even my best students falling behind in the reading, and as I considered the $125 price tag, I grew guilty and frustrated. So I decided to shake things up.

More below the fold.


I decided to give it up and not have a textbook. Instead, we’re going to get every kid a subscription to Scientific American Digital, which offers PDF versions of all issues back to 1993. Thus I can assign a plethora of articles from Sci Am and — because they’ll each have a subscription — the kids can download and read them at leisure. (Aside: Yes, I probably could just photocopy the articles I want. But (a) That would be illegal; (b) They’re better in color; and (c) Most importantly, there’s at least a small chance that some students will grow intrigued and start reading Scientific American even when it isn’t assigned.)

For most of July I went through the Sci Am archives and downloaded every article that seemed relevant to astrophysics. (I skipped the “news” items and focused only on major [6 to 10 page] articles.) My tally came to 216(!) articles. I’ve dutifully organized and cataloged these and will soon be decided which I will assign to the students. I’m figuring I can reasonably expect them to read two articles per week. More than that will likely cause a revolt. I haven’t picked out which articles or even what schedule I want to keep, but I’m confident that I will have that done within a week or two.

That’s the background. Part II goes into why this is causing me problems and lay out where I could use the help of the great wide Internets.

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