Astronomy Retains International Appeal
Over the last decade I have been privileged to work in several countries
around the world with pre-college teachers who were eager to know more
about the teaching of astronomy. Funding from the
International Astronomical Union (IAU), the United
Nations Space Agency, the National
Science Foundation, foreign government support and personal funds
have supported dozens of teacher workshops in such diverse places as
India, Japan, the (former) Soviet Union, Colombia, France, the Czech
Republic, the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, and in nearly every
one of the lower 48 United States. Without exception, teachers are
excited by the prospects of sharing the sky with their students and
are seeking guidance and
help from educators and the astronomical community.
What are the major concerns of these teachers? What do they feel
they need to improve their teaching of a subject that has inherent
interest for a wide range of students, both in age and in abilities?
Pre-college teachers who love this subject express concern for two
major lacks: a "standard" plan for curriculum content and
up-to-date and inexpensive resources for teaching the subject. What
are the educational agencies in these countries doing about it?
Although there is no global plan for this subject, the IAU has an
astronomy education commission, headed by John
Percy, University of Toronto. Dr. Percy, as a research astronomer
as well as a tireless worker for improving astronomy education, bridges
the gap between these two fields. The commission he heads has held
two international conferences on the teaching of astronomy, and a third
is being planned.
Some countries with centralized education planning address some of
the teachers' concerns that astronomy deserves to play a stronger role
in the education of their youth. Recognizing that astronomy involves
conceptualization that is difficult for young children, some countries
do not include the subject in the early curriculum. Japan's recent
10-year educational plan, for example, does not teach astronomy until
the fourth year. France has a an aggressive Liaison Committee of Teachers
of Astronomy, which hosts meetings and workshops for teachers, but
they don't stress the subject for very young children.
In the United States, recent attempts at curriculum reform have been
undertaken by such groups as the American Association for the Advancement
of Science (AAAS) and the National Research Council (NRC) of the National
Academy of Sciences. How does astronomy fare? Not very well, I fear.
For example, the AAAS's Benchmarks
for Science Literacy index lists the "earth" with nine
sub-listings while the biological topic of "body" has 10
sub-listings. "Astronomy" doesn't even show up as a separate
heading in the index, and scant references to the moon, sun, planets,
and stars are just scattered through the text. The NRC's National
Science Education Standards similarly neglects the broad topic
of astronomy. So, in the main, the teacher is left to his or her own
resources for curriculum guidance.
Although missing any strong central direction in the United States,
the professional astronomy community has responded. We can take pride
in the outreach provided by the American Astronomical Society's AASTRA
project under the leadership of Mary
Kay Hemenway, University of Texas. A ASTRA alerts teachers to the
need for hands-on experience for children to learn, and it encourages
the purchase of inexpensive materials developed for astronomy education
by other federally funded projects, including material developed for
elementary and middle school students by the Lawrence Hall of Science
as a part of their GEMS series (Great Explorations in Math and Science).
A ASTRA is partly patterned after SPICA (Support Program in Instructional
Competency in Astronomy), and both have conducted hundreds of teacher-led
workshops to alert other teachers to available resources for the field.
Another organization that has a long history of public and teacher
outreach is the Astronomical
Society of the Pacific (ASP), which is the parent of project
ASTRO, conceived and operated by the energetic Andy
Fraknoi. Project ASTRO, like A ASTRA, successfully employs the
talents of master teachers to "spread the word" through teacher-led
workshops. An inexpensive resource book "The World at Your Fingertips," with
hundreds of pages of ideas, astronomy background information, and teacher's
tips, is available from the ASP. This fine publication should be available
in every college or university physics department with an interest
in helping our colleagues improve the teaching of astronomy at the
Darrel Hoff is
professor of physics and science education at Luther College in Iowa.
Through the International Astronomical Union he has organized astronomy
education conferences and workshops in many countries, and he is
the author of astronomy laboratory manuals and "Activities in
Astronomy." In recognition of his international work in astronomy
education he was named a Fellow of the British Royal Astronomical