Interview with Sarah Maddison – Swinburne Astronomy Online

Sarah Maddison SwinburneHave you ever wished that you could get a degree in astronomy? I'm sure that many of you are responding with a resounding "yes!". Guess what? You probably can get a degree in astronomy. Depending on where you live and your educational background, you may actually have many choices. One potential option available to people worldwide (assuming they meet the entry requirements, etc.) is Swinburne Astronomy Online (SAO). Swinburne Astronomy Online offers postgraduate degrees in astronomy via a fully online program.

The SAO web site is excellent and it does a first class job of answering many of the questions a prospective student would have about admission requirements, costs, course (or unit) details, etc. However, I was very curious about the program and I wanted to know more. I thought the readers of Share Astronomy would want to know more, too. So, I requested the opportunity to interview a member of the SAO faculty. I’m happy to say that I was lucky enough to get to interview Dr. Sarah Maddison who is an Associate Professor of Astrophysics and the SAO Coordinator at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology. The interview is included below.

Next week I will have a follow-up interview with four graduates of Swinburne Astronomy Online.

What kind of student would be the ideal candidate for Swinburne Astronomy Online?

The program was initially designed for science educators and communicators, people working in astronomy related fields, amateur astronomers, and basically anyone with a love of astronomy! As time has gone by, students have joined SAO with a very wide range of backgrounds, so it really seems that there is no such thing as a “typical” SAO student. The entry requirements are an undergraduate degree, but it doesn’t need to be in science. Prospective students just (need) to demonstrate that they can cope with formal studies.

What do your alumni do with their degrees? More education? Research? Teaching?
Again it varies. Some of our US alumni do change careers and use their Masters to start teaching astronomy in Community Colleges. Others use their degree to help them get a promotion in whatever their current employment is. Some have used their degree to help them move into astronomy-related fields, like public outreach and also telescope operator. Others just like to hang the degree on their walls and continue using their backyard observatories for their own pleasure.

Where are your students located? Are they primarily from Australia?
These days about 40% of out students are from Australia and 30% for the USA. The remaining 30% come from 20-30 countries around the world.

How do you deal with time zone differences when addressing a worldwide audience?
All communication is via asynchronous discussion forums or newsgroups, with no “real time” interactions, so that the program can suit people in all timezones. Assessments items are due on Saturday night in the students timezone, which means that we can close all assessment first thing on Monday morning in Australia.

Are mature or older students encouraged to enroll at SAO?
The average age of our students in early-40s. Younger students are the minority!

In the absence of a classroom or a laboratory, how do students communicate and interact with their instructors and other students?
Via the asynchronous newsgroups. This works very well, and surprisingly students can develop quite close relationships. There is a lot of camaraderie amongst our students. Some new students do find the newsgroups quite uncomfortable, but they certainly seem to be the minority. The bottom line is that online education is not for everyone, but our students seem to really like the format that we have developed.

SAO started providing online delivery of course material in 1999. That would put you on the leading edge of online education. What has SAO learned over the years about how to provide quality online learning?
I believe that the key to successful online education is communication. We have worked very hard to develop a sense on community amongst our students and instructor, and providing weekly updates and reminding students of what is going on is really important. In terms of the course material, we are continually updating the course content and developing new ways of delivering the material and embedding interesting, interactive material that assists in student learning.

How has SAO changed and adapted over the years?
We used to produce PowerPoint content which was delivered via CDrom. We now use an online content management system, which enables movies, applets and interactive 3D content to be embedded in the course notes. We have had a few major overhauls to a few of our units, and over the years we’ve introduced new units as the field changes, like including an astrobiology course, which is a relatively new and rapidly changing area of astronomy.

Student projects are required for some classes (units or subjects). In addition, some classes (units or subjects) consist entirely of a major project. Can you provide a couple examples of student projects and explain how projects are completed by students in an online environment?
All of our units have a project component, which is worth 30% of the total grade. Each student has a project supervisor who can assist students in their research. The project topics vary in style, from advanced research projects with require students to find appropriate reading materials to analysis and synthesis, through to observational projects in which students use their own equipment to do some observing experiments, as well as computational projects where students might write their own software, or use pre-existing software to run experiments and develop a deeper upstanding of a particular area of astronomy. Students can also propose their own project on a topic that particularly interests them. Students choose their project topics early in the semester and generally have ten weeks to conduct their research and write up their reports.

We also offer four Major Project units, which have no course content component. Instead, each students has their own project to work on throughout the semester with the help of their supervisor. The major projects are always “hands-on”, in which students need to go and conduct interviews, trawl archives, go observing, reduce astronomical data, or run numerical simulations. Most students get very involved in their projects and end up doing some great research. Occasionally these projects have resulted in journal articles, which is extremely pleasing to the students and really make them feel part of the professional astronomical community.

Are students required or encouraged to own or have access to any particular lab equipment or observing instruments to complete your classes (units or subjects)?
We don’t require students to have access to telescopes or other equipment. However, we realise that many of our students are passionate amateur astronomers, and so we have a wide range of projects that suit their needs.

SAO is part of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing (CAS) at Swinburne University. Have any students from SAO gone on to work on a PhD at CAS? Is this a reasonable goal for SAO students?
The SAO Master of Science (Astronomy) is a Masters by coursework, and on its own is not a direct pathway to a PhD in Australia. To enter a PhD program, students need to have demonstrated research potential, which generally means an Honours degree with a thesis component or a Masters by research with a thesis component. That said, we have had an SAO student complete a PhD at Swinburne. He already has an Honours degree in Engineering, and used his SAO Masters to fill the gap in his astronomy background. We have had a few other alumni go off and do PhDs in other counties including the USA and Malta.

When a student completes her/his degree do you have a graduation ceremony? Do students attend in person?
Swinburne University has several graduation ceremonies per year and SAO graduates are certainly welcome to attend. We have a special gathering of our graduates and invite them to visit the Centre, meet the staff, have a tour of our supercomputing facilities, and also take a 3D flight through the universe in our Virtual Reality theatre. After the graduation ceremony, we take the new graduates our for dinner and drinks. We usually get about 20% of those graduating attending the ceremony.

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