Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice: Astronomical Instruments - Library Exhibitions - Conclusion

Toke Knudsen (State University of New York at Oneonta)

Library Exhibitions

The course and the construction of the instruments in Fall 2010 attracted some attention on campus, and some of the instruments (the three sundials and the successful armillary sphere) were put on display in an exhibition at SUNY Oneonta's Milne Library together with books on astronomy. The exhibition was on display from February 3, 2011 to March 27, 2011.

Similarly, an exhibition of two instruments (the quadrant and the sextant) was put up at Milne Library following the Fall 2014 course. The exhibition was on display from April 3, 2015 to May 1, 2015.

In 2011, three of the students from the class wrote the text accompanying the featured astronomical instruments, while I wrote the general description of the course and its instrument design phase, which was printed on an exhibition poster. In 2015, two students from the class wrote the descriptions of the two instruments on display, while I again wrote a general description.

Photos of the 2011 and 2015 exhibitions can be seen in Figures 15 and 16.

Figure 15. Exhibition of astronomical instruments built by Fall 2010 Ancient Mathematical Astronomy class (photograph by Heather Beach, SUNY Oneonta Library)

Figure 16. Exhibition of astronomical instruments built by Fall 2014 Ancient Mathematical Astronomy class (photograph by Toke Knudsen)


Overall, the course was a success. Some students put in more work than others, as is always the case, but all of them expressed to me that the design process had been a valuable experience and that it had increased their appreciation of the course. The hands-on approach energized many of the students and they enjoyed the learning process, whereas similar enthusiasm rarely comes from purely lecture-driven courses. I personally experienced that the students' theoretical understanding of the course was enhanced due to the design process and their many conversations and discussions with Anderson and me. This was helped along by the fact that the pre-Copernican, geocentric model that we worked with in most of the classes permeated the theories of nearly all of the instruments considered in the course. It was an enjoyable and very educational process for all, and several students were excited about taking a specimen home after the course.

Incorporating a design-and-construction component is certainly an approach that I would like to repeat, in future iterations of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy, of course, but also in other courses, such as Introduction to the History of Mathematics, which I teach regularly at SUNY Oneonta. It is furthermore something that I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in history or in a hands-on approach in the classroom.


I am thankful to Amy Shell-Gellasch, James Evans, and Janet Beery for their help and encouragement in bringing out this article.