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CSM Centennial

Awesome Astronomy

CSM’s AA and AS degree programs in astronomy cap a long record of student success and community outreach in the field

College of San Mateo, long known for its astronomy courses and public programs, is now one of a handful of California community colleges to offer associate degrees in the field. 

CSM’s Associate of Arts in Astronomy and Associate of Sciences in Astronomy degrees were approved in 2020, along with a new Fundamentals of Astrophysics course in which students learn and apply modern astronomical research techniques including astroimaging, spectroscopy, and photometry and obtain and analyze data from observatories worldwide. 

Astronomy Professor Darryl Stanford
Astronomy Professor Darryl Stanford

The programming was launched during COVID-19 in virtual classrooms, exemplifying CSM’s commitment to advancing teaching and learning even in the most trying times.

The AS degree requires heavy coursework in math and physics and prepares students for university transfer and possible graduate-level study in physics, astrophysics or astronomy. The AA degree is meant for future K-12 teachers and other liberal-arts majors who want to include astronomy in their studies.

CSM is possibly the only community college in the state to offer both AS and AA astronomy degree paths, reflecting the faculty’s passion for offering a range of approaches to astronomy, from monthly drop-in stargazing and Family Science Days to preparation for advanced astrophysical research.

“You can teach it at a high level with a lot of math, or you can teach it at another level when you’re just out there looking at the stars,” Astronomy Professor Darryl Stanford said. “But you want to teach it at a level that combines both.

“To understand how stars form, we use physics concepts,” Stanford said. “So, when people get excited and want to learn more, we say, ‘Here’s an equation or two that helps us understand how we see what we see.’”

CSM coursework also highlights astronomy’s global roots, from the ancient Egyptians who used stars to align the pyramids to the seafarers of the Pacific Islands to accomplishments from India and China. Observational Astronomy (ASTR 103) introduces students to making observations of the night sky, finding the height of Polaris above the northern horizon, and observing double stars and star clusters.

One section of the popular survey Introduction to Astronomy (ASTR 100) is often cohorted for campus communities such as Promise Scholars and Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), students challenged by academic and socioeconomic barriers who thrive in a supportive environment.

In fall 2020, Prof. Stanford taught CSM’s first Fundamentals of Astrophysics class (ASTR 210), with nine students who ranged from local high-schoolers in CSM’s Middle College to a retired physician.

Because of COVID, students could not use CSM’s well-equipped observatory, which houses four large reflecting and refracting telescopes including a 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope, equipped with a STL-6303 CCD camera for imaging deep sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies. Nor could students use CSM’s planetarium, a 95-seat projection facility for visual simulations of our galaxy and beyond. Instead, they used Stellarium, a planetarium program that both simulates the night sky and looking through a telescope, and an astroimaging site where they could control a telescope remotely from their home computers. They learned how to obtain and analyze data on galaxies and star clusters from observatories still operating in other parts of the world, a method CSM observatory/planetarium coordinator Justin Stevich said emulates real-world research.

“It is the way astronomy is going,” Stevich said. “You don’t actually go to telescopes any more. You’re a physicist, a mathematician, and you’re taking data you got from someone else.”

That said, CSM’s astronomers still get a thrill out of sharing the sights of the night sky and nurturing the curiosity they evoke.

“That’s the kind of thing that we really like doing,” Stevich said. “It’s really accessible but at the same time really foreign. And that allows people’s minds to wander -- and to wonder.”

CSM will offer one section of Fundamentals of Astrophysics in fall 2021. Fall registration opens May 5.  Several sections of ASTR 100 and its lab, ASTR 101, are offered in summer 2021; registration opened April 13.

Public programs will return as health guidance allows. The next Family Science Day, which will be online, is set for September 25, 2021, when the public is invited to view planetarium programs, hear a keynote speaker and look through CSM’s telescopes.

Explore CSM student astronomy projects.