Astronomy Education in America

At least once a month (often more often), I get an email from someone saying they really wished they’d taken astronomy in high school. I more rarely get emails from students who “wish [their] school taught astronomy.” In today’s world of “No Child Left Behind” (which my pre-service teachers lovingly refer to as All Children Left Behind), it is time to ask

  • How many students have the opportunity to take astronomy?
  • And of those students, how many students take astronomy? and
  • How many take it from someone who has actually studied astronomy themselves?

These questions and more were answered by almost-Dr. Lawrence Krumenaker who will be defending his PhD in the next few months. In a very brief talk he ran through all the numbers, and I have to admit that I walked away depressed. Here are the basics:

In the United States, population 330 million, there are about 4000 astronomy classes being taught in 2500 schools to 80,000 students. Roughly 800 of these classes have less than 10 students. This is a 3-4% increase from earlier work by Phil Sadler in 1986.

This means only 3.5% of all high school students take an astronomy class (1 semester long course or longer).

The teachers who teach these classes are largely to be commended. They work in isolation with 68% of them being the only person who teaches astronomy in their school, despite typically being at schools with several thousand students (and many many classes and teachers). 55% of instructors teach just one astronomy class and they spend the rest of their day teaching other classes. While most instructors (65%) have science or science education degrees, 19% are teaching completely out of their field (this would be the history majors teaching science), and 28% never actually took astronomy themselves. This means these folks are relying on workshops, online resources, their book, magazines, and other online and paper resources to get them through the classes they teach.

Imagine learning French from someone whose never studied French.

In today’s educational environment, there isn’t always room to fit in astronomy. There are no states in these United States that have astronomy education certifications. Astronomy is an extra. When something needs cut, it is one of the first programs to go.

But isn’t astronomy vast enough (encompassing the whole universe and all that) that it can be used to teach other things? When I was in middle school I took part in a curriculum called “Project STAR” (where I met Phil Sadler). The STAR is in all caps because it stands for “Scientific Teaching Through its Astronomical Roots.” This program sought to teach math, and physics, and much much more, while teaching astronomy.

Is it too much to wish that 10%, or any other double digit number, of students were able to take astronomy in high school from teachers who have taken a university level course in astronomy?

Sadly, yes, that is too much to ask.

9 Comments

  1. Jorge Schrauwen January 8, 2008 at 7:45 pm #

    I had +- 2h of astronomy related stuff in 3th year wrapped in a general class called PAV sort of a mix of geography, math and biology.

    Half of the info as wrong too and teacher got irritated about my constant corrections. I know of non astronomy oriantated course to take in uni/college over here.

    (there probably is a sub-course in physics but its not promoted well)

  2. Freiddie January 8, 2008 at 11:00 pm #

    I really wish it was there.

  3. Beth January 9, 2008 at 12:12 am #

    I don’t think most states have computer science education certifications either. I think the best you will get is earth and space sciences education certification. At my university, known for its teacher education program, the earth and space science secondary education students must take an astronomy course. One.

    My 9th grade daughter has a wonderful teacher for earth sciences who fits in some astronomy. It’s not as much as she’d like, but it’s some. I think there’s also a separate astronomy course. But the kids have seen some astronomy in elementary school as well.

    As much as I love astronomy, I think it’s more important to push a solid math background as well as general science. Fitting astronomy in with earth sciences seems to work here.

    But no, it’s not too much to ask that the science teachers have taken at least one course in astronomy.

    Have fun in Texas.

  4. Richard B. Drumm January 9, 2008 at 12:34 am #

    Well, I’ll do my bit! I’m presenting my “What Is Astronomy?” PowerPoint to a Brownie Troop at McCormick Observatory Friday night and then taking my scope on the road to a local elementary school for a little Mars Madness on Jan 22.

    Then on Jan 25 I do the same prezo to 20 home schoolers at McCormick. I make a point of explaining the scientific method at the beginning and describing what a theory really is. So many of the uninformed dismiss evolution as “just a theory” I want to set things straight.

    Then on Feb 22 I operate the 26″ Clark refractor for a Mars & Saturn extravaganza for 39 4th graders at McCormick (our club treasurer does the prezo that night).

    I know what you mean when you write on astronomical ignorance in the general public. On more occasions than I’d like to remember I’ve had people see my telescope at my house and exclaim “Oh, you’re an astrologer!”
    :groan:
    Rich

  5. Donald L. McAtee January 10, 2008 at 11:36 am #

    My High School didn’t have an Astronomy class; if it had I would definitely taken it! The closest it had was Physics which I did take.

    All of my interest in Astronomy has come from my Dad’s enthusiasm. He even had me watch the lunar landing when I was 6 months old!

  6. Lindsay January 15, 2008 at 8:08 am #

    I actually teach Astronomy. It is my most popular science class! (I teach five different sciences each day.) I am so excited when we get into deep discussions about the different possibilities out there. I wish all schools would offer Astronomy because it gets kids thinking (and that is really what school is all about).

  7. M. Schneider July 9, 2008 at 6:37 pm #

    I think High School Planetariums were of use from the 1950s until the 1990s but that 40 year period has come and gone simply because Computers have become so functional…it’s the Colleges that still have those advanced courses and Planetariums now.

  8. Don Spain July 9, 2008 at 10:29 pm #

    I taught astronomy in Adult Education in the 1980s. The classes ranged from Beginning Astronomy to simple Astrophotography. The classes met 1 night a week for 6 weeks. It got to the point where enrollment was hight enough to have 3 classes each week. I limited the classes to a maximum of 12 students as I figured that was the most I could instruct comfortably. Let me say I am an amateur astronomy, no college degree. These classes were well received and in fact a lot of elementary school teachers took the class and received educational credit from the county school system.

    I am now retired and am going to again teach astronomy classes in 2 different county Adult Education programs this fall. Its a shame that astronomy is just regulated to a just a few days, if that much, in the elementary and high schools. They are usually taught almost as an afterthought by teachers who are unfamiliar with the subject.

    Our local astronomy club, The Louisville Astronomical Society, recently did a star party for a group of high school seniors, most who knew little about what was in the heavens. We showed them the planets and stars through the telescopes and pointed out star patterns and the mythology of the constellations. Almost none of them had any knowledge of even basic astronomy from their high school careers.

    Astronomy is a beautiful science and needs far greater support than our public school systems are providing.

  9. Ana rahoo June 15, 2013 at 6:58 am #

    Hi
    My name is ana. i am 14 years old (girl). i study in class 8. i live in poor city of pakistan. My interest in physics astronomy.
    here not facilities for girls education.Do you give some knowledge of astronomy.

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