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Introduction to Astronomy Course Review

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

The following review examines my experience completing the Introduction to Astronomy course on Outlier as well as my thoughts on Outlier as a learning platform. Outlier is essentially an ‘official’ online university and the courses offer actual credits from the University of Pittsburgh, which can be transferred to other universities. Their mission is “to increase access to quality college education and dramatically reduce student debt.” I think this is a noble mission statement, and while I have not been paid or asked to review this course, if the Outlier team happens to read this, I’d love to collaborate and be an advocate!

I also need to state that I completed the audit version of this course. The audit version includes the same content at the same price of $400 USD, but students may take the course at their leisure and are not required to finish the course within a fixed period. You can also take the lessons and quizzes, but I did not see the midterm or exam in my audit version. This course was of personal interest to me. I wanted a course to ease me into my goal of completing more courses on Outlier that could transfer credits to an eventual future degree.

Overall Review

Overall, the Introduction to Astronomy course was extremely well put together and well worth the price. The content, and the video lectures in particular, were enticing, interesting, and I learned an incredible amount. However, this course was hard work and time consuming, as anyone should expect in exchange for university credits. So if you are looking to purchase one of their courses, make no presumption that this will be an “easy” way to receive university credits, you will need time and commitment to finish the course. Each lesson takes on average six hours to complete and there are nineteen lessons. In comparison, this course was far more effective and more interesting than any other college or university course I have taken thus far. If you do have the time and a real desire to learn, I would recommend this over a traditional online course at a university or college.

Why I Chose Outlier

I chose Outlier for many reasons, including their marketing team being very good at their jobs! Even though I am also in marketing and know the tricks of the trade, they won me over with their marketing charm. I was intrigued to learn more every time I saw their Instagram ads. This ultimately led me to sign up for this course, as well as the Introduction to Psychology. Kudos to the Outlier team, they’ve romanticized higher education better than any Ivy League school.

Outlier currently offers a wide range of courses and are expanding their library almost daily. From psychology and philosophy to calculus and macroeconomics, I personally look forward to taking every single course they launch (minus Introduction to Statistics - I’m still recovering from the trauma of almost failing and having to retake my college stats class over a decade ago). However, I could even be convinced to take the Intro to Statistics class on Outlier on the basis of my wonderful experience so far.

Lesson Structure & Time Commitment

Guess Work (5 minutes): This part of the lesson takes less than five minutes, it’s around three pre-lecture questions that I am assuming exists to just provide Outlier a general idea of what students already knew before each lesson. You are not graded on these questions at all and they are pretty easy.

Lectures (30 - 90 minutes): The lectures consist of a handful of videos between five and twenty-five minutes each. This part of the lesson is by far the most interesting and it was also my favorite. I felt I learned the most during these videos, which could be just the way I learn best. The professors are extremely engaging and energetic, you can tell that they are really passionate about what they are teaching. The videos were of high quality, the lighting was great and the backgrounds were interesting. They also use graphic overlays and other videos to help explain the content more in depth. I found some of these lectures so interesting that I watched them twice!

Active Learning (90 - 180 minutes): This part of the lesson is by far the hardest and most time consuming. Active learning consists of reading through short slides of information with a knowledge test every couple of slides. Each lesson has about 90-280 slides and they vary in length of text and content. Some are short paragraphs, some are complex mathematical solutions, some have images, some are links to videos on YouTube, and some are a couple of paragraphs long. At first I thought these slides were just a duplicate of information learned in the video lectures, but they are different and cover a lot more detail.

Practice Terms (30 - 45 minutes): The practice terms are essentially flashcards and they are about thirty to fifty cards per lesson. The idea is that you practice the flashcards before taking the quiz, however the cards did not always cover the topics on the quiz.

Quizzes (10 - 30 minutes): There is a quiz after each lesson, and if I were taking a credit version of the course, they would have counted toward my final grade. In the audit version, you do see the grade you receive from the quizzes. You have five opportunities to take the quiz after each lesson and the quiz with the highest grade would count towards your grade (if you were taking the credit version). The quizzes are ten questions each and each quiz in the same lesson is slightly different. However, I do recommend going through your results for each completed quiz because there are some duplicate questions.

Level of Difficulty

I am giving the Introduction to Astronomy course a solid 7/10 as it was challenging at some parts. I'm not sure why I was so surprised by the physics and chemistry that appeared in this course, after all it is university level astronomy class. I did expect a lot of history and some basic science, but did not expect the course to dive into areas like the mathematical equations of lightwaves and chemical compositions of stars. The lectures are entertaining, but I felt that the active learning sections were hard to get through. I will also note that I felt like the lessons became slightly easier towards the midway point of the course and shorter towards the final lessons.

The Professors

All the professors were equally impressive. It would be extremely rare to have the same ability to learn from all of the experts in a program in a general introduction to astronomy course at a traditional university or college. The energy and passion they brought to every single video kept me at maximum engagement. Below is a brief introduction to the professors and a small glimpse into what you can expect from them over the entire course.

Hakeem Oluseyi, Ph.D. - Florida Institute of Technology: Hakeem is vibrant and enthusiastic about everything he covers. He pumps you up and gets you excited for the lectures and he even bursts out in song to help you memorize the quadratic formula. I may not be able to do anything with the quadratic formula, but I can sing the song. I enjoyed watching every single one of his lessons.

Michelle Thaller, Ph.D.- NASA: Michelle is downright impressive and I had a sense of awe while watching her deliver the lectures. She covers the more anticipated topics too, like the Big Bang, blackholes, and the end of the universe. She creatively uses props to explain complex theories and I also enjoyed her lectures. Lastly, I have to note that I have a bit of office envy, she has the most beautiful space décor in her background, including crystal geodes and beautiful constellation globes!

Jackie Faherty, Ph.D. - American Museum of Natural History: Jackie has the most interactive content as she frequently takes you through tours of the universe and its many stars and worlds. Her virtual tours show you the vast and infinite universe. It is an unbelievable view and amazing experience that she provides for her students. Jackie also showcases many modern astronomers, many of whom are women. I can really admire her commitment to honoring the up and coming astronomers of our time.

David Grinspoon, Ph.D. - Planetary Science Institute: Last but definitely not least is David. As mentioned below, he delivers some of my favorite lessons of the course. He has this passionate way of delivering a lot of easy to absorb information in a short amount of time. His planetary humor and one liners give him a certain engaging edge and I enjoyed watching his video lectures very much.

Favorite Lesson

Definitely exploring the planets and their moons with David Grinspoon. He took us through a guided tour of our solar system while educating us on our truly unique planets and their moons. Any preconceived knowledge of our solar system that I may have learned in school had completely changed by the end of this course. Moons, planets, and stars can be oddly similar, yet over millions of years they become so vastly different.

Another interesting part of this section was learning that Venus and Mars most likely had life on them millions of years ago. I am fascinated by the idea that many of the planets were like Earth at one point and am curious if there are lessons we can learn from the history of these once habitable planets. There is a “sci-fi fan” hope of mine that we will find ancient cities under the sand dunes of Mars or discover the remains of species we had never even dreamed of.

Fun Facts I Learned (without giving away too much)

  • There are BILLIONS of galaxies that each have TRILLIONS of their own stars, just a reminder that our sun is also a star.

  • One out of every five stars may have habitable planets in its orbit.

  • NASA has a telescope on an airplane observatory called Sofia, which stands for The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

  • Stars don't actually die, they just turn into more stars, in a brilliant and beautiful yet extremely violent way.

  • The northern lights are a phenomenon created by Earth's magnetic field, when charged particles collide with earth's gasses.

  • The Himalayas actually grow 1 cm per year because of tectonic collision.

  • Two out of the potentially 79 moons of Jupiter are pretty unique. One consists of the most volcanic surface in the solar system and another is completely covered in an ocean with an icy crust.

  • Saturn’s rings are actually made of 600 plus ‘mini moons” as well as interstellar dust.

  • There’s a higher chance of finding life on the moons in our solar system than any of our planets.

  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Harvard University had a group of women called the Harvard Computers who processed astronomical data.

  • Many women in the Harvard Computers made historical achievements like Cecilia Helena Payne who correctly hypothesized the material makeup of our sun (although we did not know she was correct at the time)

  • On the Voyager spacecrafts that explored the exoplanets in 1977, we placed two golden records on board for the purpose of alien life forms finding them. After the spacecraft completed their mission, they will now fly for millions of years through the vastness of space.

  • The Golden Records include greetings in different languages from around the world, sounds of human interactions, sounds of earth and important songs from different countries. NASA wanted to include the Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun” but they were denied because of copyright issues!

Final Thoughts

In conclusion this course exceeded my expectations and was probably worth the asking price and more. It felt like a true university level course in its sense of difficulty, but was far more interactive and engaging. I gained a ton of invaluable knowledge from this course and was surprised by what I didn’t know about our own solar system. If you are interested in space, or fascinated by the stars when you look up at the sky, this course is absolutely worth taking. I genuinely looked forward to the time I set aside for this course nightly. Instead of starting that next Netflix series or wasting your precious time scrolling through social media, I encourage you to challenge your brain and take an Outlier course.

I will end this review with some perspective I gained after completing this course. When you look up at the night sky and find the constellation of Orion, know that you are looking up at one of the most beautiful birthplaces of stars. Our time on earth is a mere hiccup in the life of a star (billions of years) and life in itself is a miracle that we get to witness and experience. In order to really show you how miraculously insignificant we are, I will leave you with this famous image of earth from the Voyager spacecraft. That tiny pale blue dot in the beam of light is Earth taken from roughly the distance of Pluto. Just from the view within our own solar system, that is how small our home really is. And in Carl Sagan's words, "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us."

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