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Building an Undergraduate Astronomy Programme at Ashoka University

With the enthusiasm, support, help and technical expertise at all levels, Ashoka provides a very special ecosystem where it has been a privilege to grow the Astronomy programme

Dipankar Bhattacharya

12 December, 2023 | 6m read

“An Astronomy Minor,” said the Vice Chancellor Prof. Malabika Sarkar, about what she wished to see being offered at Ashoka and soon. “The enthusiasm is immense.”

This was August 2021, when I was offered the task. I knew little about what this meant but was sold on the idea. While it would take me nine more months to join the University, I did visit the campus in September 2021. On my way back, Prof. Bikram Phookun accompanied me to Delhi on a car ride, which turned out to be a defining one. Heavy traffic slowed our progress, allowing a long, uninterrupted discussion on the undergraduate Astronomy programme. Much of what followed has been built on the plans we hatched that day.

Astronomy today is one of the most heavily funded research disciplines worldwide and is widely covered in the news and popular articles. There needs to be more opportunities for undergraduate education though, the current focus being mainly on the post-graduate level.

We wished for a curriculum that would be contemporary, informative and fun. The goal was also to put the advanced student in touch with research skills. We came up with a bouquet of at least nine courses for the students to choose from. The courses would span the full range of levels from introductory to advanced.

The Physics programme at Ashoka places a strong emphasis on laboratory work. Astronomy was going to be no exception. Like in Physics, we decided that the introductory gateway course to Astronomy Minor would also be hands-on. What could be better than to gaze up at the sky to start with?

That meant that we needed to first build an Astronomy laboratory. Thanks to the enthusiastic and generous support of all concerned, we were able to acquire some equipment quickly. Several others we built from scratch (and in fact from scrap)! For the supremely talented Pradip Chaudhari, senior technician at the Physics Laboratory, this was a labour of love. By the end of 2022, we were ready with a set of truly unique astronomy experiments.

The Astronomy Minor was launched in Spring 2023. In the first batch of the gateway laboratory course Observing the Cosmos, we had students spanning all years and from diverse majors such as Physics, Computer Science, History and Political Science. Over the semester, they learned how to navigate the sky and estimate distances and motions. They engaged in astrophotography, obtained spectra and determined the temperature and composition of stars.

That was just one of several new courses. Among the others was The Physics of the Universe, which described how everything around us came to be, starting from the early days of the Big Bang. The Violent Universe talked about energetic sources and phenomena, including pulsars, quasars and explosions like supernovae. A course on Cosmic Messengers delivered in two parts—theory and laboratory—dealt with the origin, propagation and detection of radiation at all wavelengths, from radio to gamma rays, as well as gravitational waves and energetic particles. Students learned to handle, analyse and interpret data from cutting-edge professional astronomical observatories. Also in the mix were advanced courses such as Astrophysical and Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, Computational Astrophysics and Geophysics and General Relativity and Cosmology.

Teaching this array of courses was always going to be challenging, particularly as there was no suitable teaching material readily available. We needed additional faculty members with a rare combination of breadth, depth and a sense of adventure. It was our great fortune that Prof. Kandaswamy Subramanian, a renowned astrophysicist, readily agreed to our request to join Ashoka University as a visiting professor to help with the programme. That was a key moment.

In Monsoon 2023, we had Prof. Sujan Sengupta visiting us as a guest faculty to teach a course on The Earth and Other Planets. Prof. Sengupta is India’s top expert in the rapidly developing area of Exoplanets and has a unique perspective to offer on planets in and outside the solar system, habitability and extraterrestrial life.

The first round of the full complement of current Astronomy Minor courses is just about to be completed. It has been an exciting time putting the programme together, but this is only the beginning. Based on this experience, the courses will be improved and fine-tuned. Astrophysics research is already being carried out by several Ph.D. and ASP students, this component will expand to involve more undergraduates. New courses of an interdisciplinary nature, drawing on the diverse strengths of Ashoka, are also under discussion.

What has been wonderful to see is the student enthusiasm both in and outside the classroom. Astronomy activity in the campus has picked up greatly. The Astronomy Club has now become a fully functional Society and is organising frequent programmes, often jointly with other student societies. Astronomy content has made its way into the Young India Fellowship, the Young Scholars Programme and the Lodha Genius Programme. An increasing number of Ashoka students are now engaging in Astronomy internships at other institutions.

Students have also helped shape the astronomy programme to a great extent. Over two summers, exploratory projects undertaken by Ashoka undergraduates have contributed to the final design of laboratory experiments. A special mention is due to Philip Cherian, Ph.D. scholar in Physics, who has been intimately involved and has had an immense role to play in all these activities.

With the enthusiasm, support, help and technical expertise at all levels, Ashoka provides a very special ecosystem where it has been a privilege to grow the Astronomy programme. Thanks are due to many, including the Physics faculty, the Board of Studies, the Academic Council, all the Deans, the Board of Management and the constant encouragement by the Vice Chancellors, both past and present. We look forward to the times ahead.

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