One undergraduate course’s transformation into what is known as “signature” class for the fall represented a solution for resource-starved classes amid financial belt-tightening.
What was once a class with a maximum of 200 students, “Introduction to Astronomy” is slated to expand to allow approximately 600 students to take the course each semester.
Arav, an associate professor of physics who has been at Virginia Tech for two-and-a-half years, is the class instructor.
The class is open to all majors but is only a requirement for astronomy minors. Nevertheless, it still tends to be one of the more sought after courses by undergraduates. According to Arav, the 200 seats are filled very quickly during the first day of course request each semester, prompting what he saw as a need for expansion.
In spring 2009, Arav and his department chair approached Daniel Wubah, vice president and dean of undergraduate education, about expanding the class to allow more students. Wubah suggested making the course a “signature” class. With this new title, the course took on several changes, most notably by tripling the class’ enrollment capacity to allow more students to sign up.
Arav said that this sudden increase in students would not affect the way he taught the class.
“As soon as you have more than 100 students in the class, anything between 100 and 1,000 is all the same,” he said, admitting that a larger class can limit personal contact for the students.
To aid with such a large class size, the plan is to have several undergraduate “learning assistants” who will teach weekly recitations. The recitations will be optional, and each section will have between 20 and 30 students.
“These recitations will be much more intimate, the students will get much more personal attention, and they can ask the questions that they could not in the big classroom,” Arav said.
A big change for signature classes will be the increased use of technology. These courses will work toward enhancing the high-tech education experience for students.
For example, with clickers, the professor will teach a concept and can instantly test whether or not the students understand it. Additionally, Arav’s course will utilize Tech’s projection capabilities to incorporate state-of-the-art graphics, media, and visual imagery of astronomy and astrophysics.
One reason the class is such a popular choice for students is because of the reputation of the professor teaching the course. This past semester, Arav was nominated and was a finalist for the Sporn Award for Excellence in Teaching Introductory Subjects.
“At the end of the day,” Arav said, “this specific signature class is meant to appeal to a large portion of our students, to give them as much scientific education using astronomy as the vehicle and allow them to gain experience with the use of technology.”