I’ve been a lifelong amateur astronomer, space enthusiast, and more recently: a solar observing enthusiast. In recent years, I’ve been doing increasing amounts of astronomy outreach; Last summer I held a weekly Sunday morning solar observing outreach program at a park near my home. For the people who looked at the Sun through my telescopes, it was the first time well over 90% of them had ever used one.
There’s no reason in the world, anyone should go through school, never having looked through a telescope.
Every time I’ve talked to the general public about how much astronomy they covered during their schooling, they tell me it was either: a few days, maybe a few weeks, or nothing at all. This includes people of all ages, but most disturbingly: people in their teens and twenties.
I held an Astronomy Outreach event at my wife’s elementary school in mid-April. I talked to three 3rd grade classes about the Sun, and showed them photos and videos from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Then, I took them outside; my wife showed them some of my meteorites, while I showed them the Sun through my 8″ Dob and a 40mm Solar Telescope. The students absolutely LOVED IT! So did I – I learned quite a bit myself.
If students are fortunate enough to have a fantastic teacher like my wife, who actually knows (and likes) astronomy, they’ll get a LOT of good information crammed into whatever brief time she’s allotted to teach it. But even as good a teacher as my wife is, that time is simply not sufficient anymore… Within the subject of astronomy, there’s too much that should be taught. Some topics in astronomy require prior knowledge in Math, Chemistry, and/or Physics before they can be well understood.
My wife was evaluating a well-known publisher’s Science series for her 3rd grade class. I flipped to the page on the Sun. I was literally shocked at what I saw: one single page about the Sun, 50% covered in pretty pictures, absolutely minuscule amount of useful information, AND the Sun’s core temperature incorrect. There was nothing about the fact that the sun is 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System, nothing about what it was made of, nothing about the surface temperature, magnetic fields, prominences, flares, CMEs, plasma – completely dreadful! If this kind of text is being used to teach our kids astronomy and Science, I weep for Science education.
I recently attended a convention, and participated in a discussion panel titled “Science and Society.” I was asked to comment on NEOs and the Russian meteor impact event. I asked the audience if they’d ever heard of the Tunguska impact event; about 50% of them had. I gave them a quick overview, and got a lot of wide eyes.
It has been my experience that ignorance of astronomy is at near epidemic proportions. It is my very firm conviction that EVERY student in the State of Michigan, and the entire USA should be taught and experience astronomy during their school years. It needs to be done better. It needs to start earlier – around the 3rd or 4th grade. It needs to be taught not just for a few days, or one single quarter – but over the course of several years, integrated with Physics, Math, Chemistry and History.
Carl Sagan once said that learning about astronomy is a humbling and character building experience; I can attest to that fact. Astronomy is a subject that inspires you to branch out and study other scientific disciplines: geology, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, math, etc. Neil deGrasse Tyson frequently talks about how NASA’s Moon missions inspired a generation to dream about tomorrow – it certainly did for me. We need a return to this type of thinking, to inspire students and young adults to become critically-thinking, knowledgeable, engineers and scientists. Astronomy needs to become the prestigious, sought-after field of study it once was.
The way astronomy is being taught within our schools has to change. With the The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) being accepted by more and more states throughout the US, now is the right time to make sure astronomy gets integrated into curriculums properly.
My wife, Constance, taught 7th and 8th grade advanced Science for 11 years in southeastern Michigan. She wrote the following:
If you want Astronomy education to improve in Michigan, you must encourage those who do the educating: specifically the teachers. There is a myth that teachers enjoy a lot of free time, off by 4pm, weekends and summers free as well as getting holidays and spring breaks off, but this is far from the truth. The average teacher’s day does not end when the school day ends, but continues on into the night with correcting and planning for the following day. Summers and holidays are spent taking classes and workshops to improve their knowledge base so they can re-certify their teaching degrees. There is very little free time when you are a teacher.
This being said, a teacher who is not confident or comfortable with a particular topic tends to leave that topic for the end, or cover said topic in a superficial manner. The more a teacher has to research the topic to teach it thoroughly, the less likely they are to spend the minimal time available to them to do so.
If you want astronomy education to improve in schools, then you must provide teachers with an easy to understand background on the topics they are required to teach, as well as easy to use activities, labs, and websites to enhance their students education.
- Look up the required Michigan Benchmarks for Astronomy education
- Choose interesting topics where a lab or activity can be provided along with background information for the teacher
- Provide websites and powerpoint presentations for the classroom
- Do a “make and take” for the teachers.
What is a “make and take?”
The premise behind a “make and take” is an event where local teachers get together and circulate around an area that is focused on a specific topic: such as astronomy. The presenters have display boards announcing what their area of the topic is, as well as a lesson plan in which to teach this topic. The teachers go to the presenters that are pertinent to their specific level of teaching with the goal being that each teacher walks away with a handful of lesson plans that can easily be implemented into their classroom to teach the subject area – and be able to chat with someone knowledgeable about the subject.
For teachers who are not comfortable or confident in astronomy this is invaluable! It builds the teachers own educational base as well as provides them with activities, labs, and educational materials they can bring into their classroom to give their students a solid understanding of the concepts in astronomy.
If coupled with an astronomy event such as the Kensington Astronomy at the beach (allowing these educators and students to look through telescopes and make much needed connections), it will build the confidence and excitement needed. Even if you reach only 1 teacher in the entire area, this would mean that 150 young people a year will improve their knowledge of astronomy.
Here is a sad fact for you to consider: astronomy is not taught to our students beyond the 8th grade (unless a high school specifically has an astronomy course). These students are then required to answer questions in the 11th grade on the Michigan MME exam, three years AFTER they have received their last introduction to astronomy.
Creating these “make and takes” is something that would take the effort of several people. Local and regional astronomy clubs and societies would be an excellent resource to tap for this. They also often have members who will do guest lectures in the classroom.
Disclaimer: the comments in this post are solely those of Bob and Connie Trembley, and do not reflect those of any other persons or entities.