By Steve Koppes
Photo by Dan Dry

We have the saying that we teach teachers. We learn a lot from these future teachers. We’re actually teaching and learning pretty much at the same rate.”
—Angela Olinto

When Angela Olinto communicates with other cosmologists, they often rely on equations to transmit their scientific thoughts quickly. But teaching cosmology to undergraduate non-science majors requires completely different methods.

“It challenges your imagination,” says Olinto.

The Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics does not offer an undergraduate major but provides a variety of service courses for undergraduates who wish to learn about the universe. Olinto has been significantly involved in organizing and teaching these courses.

Cosmology for non-science majors

In 1998, she helped redesign the department’s classes for undergraduates from non-science majors. The following year, she helped develop the department’s specialization in astrophysics for science majors.

Then in 2008, Olinto helped develop a sequence of three study-abroad courses in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago Center in Paris. Olinto recently returned from Paris, where she had been teaching a course titled “The Origin of the Universe and How We Know It.”

That course is for non-science majors, as are her courses on the "Origin and Evolution of the Universe" and on "European Astronomy & Astrophysics." For science majors, Olinto also has taught the Physics of the Early Universe and the Physics of Galaxies in the Universe.

“These were all new classes, actually, every single one of them,” she says.

Olinto approaches the teaching of cosmology to non-science majors with the idea that "everybody should be able to get some of it and that curiosity is really the requirement more than the mathematical skills.”

What is known and isn’t known

Olinto faces two major challenges in these courses: The first is to convey to students the size of the universe while also showing the importance of the subatomic scale to cosmological research.

“We have a very limited range in both space and time that we are familiar with,” Olinto says. “We don’t know space aside from human-scale spaces, so when you go much, much smaller, or much, much larger, things change.”

The second challenge is to clearly define the boundary between what cosmologists know and don’t know about the universe. They have learned quite a lot about what happened from 10 billionth of a second after the big bang to today, 13.7 billion years later. But they still do not know what 95 percent of the universe is made of, nor what happened before 10 billionth of a second after the big bang.

“By knowing so much, we learn that we don’t know very much, which is kind of fun,” she says. It’s also fun to work with UChicago students.

“In every class there’s somebody who says something I haven’t thought of before,” Olinto says. “We have the saying that we teach teachers. We learn a lot from these future teachers. We’re actually teaching and learning pretty much at the same rate.”

Originally published on May 27, 2011.