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Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice: Astronomical Instruments - Introduction

Toke Knudsen (State University of New York at Oneonta)


Soon after I began my current position in the Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Statistics at the State University of New York at Oneonta (SUNY Oneonta) in 2008, I began to think about how best to utilize my academic expertise in my classes. A Ph.D. graduate from Brown University's now defunct Department of History of Mathematics, my specialty is mathematical astronomy in ancient and medieval India. I felt strongly that incorporating the knowledge that I acquired in graduate school into my teaching would be valuable to SUNY Oneonta and its students, as well as to myself.

One persistent theme in my deliberations was the use of objects in the classroom. As a graduate student I was exposed to thorough analyses of a good number of astronomical instruments, and I spent time thinking through how they worked. I felt that similar exposure would be valuable to my students at SUNY Oneonta. I had already on some occasions brought objects to my Introduction to the History of Mathematics and Mathematics for the Liberal Arts classes at SUNY Oneonta, where each student would hold and briefly manipulate an abacus, a quadrant, or a replica of a Mesopotamian clay tablet containing a multiplication table. However, while I found that such brief handling of an object was definitely positive for the students' engagement and learning, it was not sufficient for them to get a deeper appreciation for the theory behind the object or for how it worked in practice. In other words, I was looking for a way to have my students engage with objects in a more substantial way, enabling them to understand both the theory behind an object and the construction and use of it.

During a conversation in April 2009, about a year and a half prior to the debut of the course that I was to design, Allen Anderson, SUNY Oneonta's Science Technician, helped me devise a plan for how to simultaneously achieve my goals of using my academic expertise in my teaching and greater student involvement with objects. I learned that SUNY Oneonta owns a 3D printer, as well as other machinery, by which parts for objects could be constructed using plastic, wood, metal, and other materials. This opened up an exciting pedagogical opportunity for me.  While students are not allowed to operate any of the machinery due to insurance issues, they could engage with the design of astronomical instruments in consultation with Anderson and myself, and the designs could subsequently be constructed by Anderson. More specifically, Anderson could construct the necessary parts for a given astronomical instrument, which the students could subsequently assemble.

Toke Knudsen (State University of New York at Oneonta), "Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice: Astronomical Instruments - Introduction," Convergence (May 2015), DOI:10.4169/convergence20150501