FEd December 1997 Newsletter - Astronomy Retains International Appeal for Teachers

December 1997



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Astronomy Retains International Appeal for Teachers

Darrel Hoff

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 K-12 level.

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 Society.