Emerging Fields: Astronomy Communications and Education

When I started graduate school, I was given the impression that astronomy consisted of two broad formats (observational and theoretical) and addressed a set of specific subtopics (planets, stars, intersteller media, galaxies/cosmology). In this paradigm, people who studied how people learn astronomy were off to the side somewhere. In broad brush strokes, this is a fairly fair image. While there is a rich and dynamic group of people working to both teach astronomy and communicate astronomy to the public, these people are generally side-lined, devalued, or just not seen as professional astronomers. Today, in South Africa, the “Communicating Astronomy to the Public” meeting is seeking to change this view by bringing a new level of professionalism to our new field, and by demonstrating that we have an impact on how the world sees the stars (and everything else in the sky).

Looking around the room, I see PhD astronomers, journalists, educators, amateur astronomers, and business managers, all involved in making people look up and learn. That we are all here – let to travel by our departments and funded through our grants and institutions – is a demonstration that times are changing and what we are doing is valued at some level.

When I was a graduate student, in the 6.5 years I was in Texas, two different astronomy education researchers come and give colloquium talks. On a third occasion, three of us in the department gave a talk. In all three instances, people came out of the woodwork (or at least up from the physics department) to heckle the speakers, making it clear they didn’t think statistical results from education research could be valid because they always knew some example that was an exception to the average. This was horrible logic. According to their logic, I can say that the average 1st grader (6 year old) can’t do algebra based on research, but because I know one first graders who can do algebra, all my research is invalid. This is horrible logic! But, when your goal is to invalidate someone, logic doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be good enough to caste doubt in an audience. And that’s what these people wanted to do – discredit and side line astronomy education research (heck, even Sagan was mocked for spending time communication astronomy).

This sidelining of education and communication conveys a horrible message: It tells young scientists with a passion and an ability to communicate and/or teach that they are wasting their time when they do anything other than research on astronomical objects. I’ve heard it said, those who can’t do research teach.

The only way I know to change this attitude is to raise the professionalism of our field. We need to demonstrate that communicating astronomy online isn’t just playing online. We need to demonstrate that teaching based on educational theory and prepared interactive class plans actually has a better impact than the traditional lecture from notes (I remember being told to keep all my college notes because they would form the core of my future lecture teaching notes). At the end of the day, we as a field of astronomy educators and communicators have to demonstrate that what we learn from our work matters and that we are changing lives.

This is what I do. When I first started podcasting back in 2005, I dealt with a lot of “Your wasting your time” comments. And I heard a lot of “Having fun playing online?” comments. Since then, I’ve been working one paper at a time to show that while yes, I am playing online, what I’m doing matters. And I’m just one of many people working to do this. In recent years, two new journals, the Astronomy Education Review journal, and the Communicating Astronomy to the Public journal, have been created for the group of us working to demonstrate the results of our work. Yes, I’m a trained variable star astronomer and galaxy researcher (and I’ve promised myself to publish papers on each this year to clean out my data backload). But while I’m a astronomy object researcher, I’m also working to become an astronomy communications researcher.

As the population of us doing this work has been growing and gaining momentum, we’ve been taking on larger and larger projects, from becoming the voices for space missions (or twitter feeds), to recruiting and training citizen scientists, to all the things in Caroline Odman’s talk (which will go online soon and get linked to here), we are doing more and studying the impact of everything we do as we go.

In someways, the International Year of Astronomy was our two new fields’ opportunity to shine. We were given a chance to go out and play with the entire planet and make a difference, and this week we are reporting back about our successes, and we are planning how to make the best of what we’ve done last beyond 2010.

I have to admit, I have been too jet lagged to keep up with the numbers and graphs that have gone flying past. All the talks from this meeting will go online (including my jet lagged talk). Rather then do a poor job summarizing things here, I’d encourage you to look at the twitter messages under hash tag #CAP2010 and watch for the results to be posted. Read the journals. Get things first hand.

I know a lot of science communicators – journalists, amateur observers, spacetweeps, teachers, and others – read this blog. You too are part of changing this field. The journals I named above to not require a PhD to publish results. As we build our new field, I would challenge all of you to evaluate what you do, track outcomes, learn what triggers people going from passively paying attention to astronomy that randomly appears in front of them (go go guerrilla sidewalk astronomers) to actively seeking astronomy content (and maybe even becoming sidewalk astronomers themselves).

Be part of the dialogue. Together, we are astronomers.


  1. Chris March 17, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    This is so very true at many levels…I wish I was there in South Africa to join in the discussion

  2. Oana Sandu March 17, 2010 at 6:50 am #

    Inspiring post!!

    Good luck at CAP and keep us posted


  3. amanda March 17, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    sign me up!!

    but where…? i’m still searching.

  4. pamela March 17, 2010 at 7:31 am #

    At the most practical level, the dialogue is through the journals (AER and CAPjournal). ON a more official level, commission 55 of the IAU is working to define ways to be part of the international movement. On a lower level, I’m going to be working with commission 55 to define a new media community once my IYA evaluations are behind me.

  5. John Daigle March 17, 2010 at 8:46 am #

    Thank You!

    I am constantly being told not to focus on teaching, because the real value is in research, but the reason I want a PhD is to teach!

    I’m in the field I’m in because I read two books, both popular, both about computation (Gödel, Escher, Bach and Complexity). Without popularization, primary and secondary school kids can’t get an impression of the field and have their interest sparked.

    And without popular curiosity, science funding for all the “valuable” research is constantly in jeopardy. The Hubble Telescope is a great case in point: it’s still going because people love the pictures! They want to see what’s out there, but if no one was taking the time to share that with them, they wouldn’t care.

  6. Alice March 17, 2010 at 11:08 am #

    But for some of us in Astronomy Education (especially when we’re not in universities) publishing is seen as extra, on-the-side, and we’re not given the time or resources to put together papers that would support this field.

    It’s like research professionals and education professionals are valued for diametrically opposed contributions.

    Also, a large number of educators aren’t trained in putting together a scientifically-acceptable paper, so when we do find the time to write one it is less rigorous than one might hope.

    I also see a lot of grants going by that require an outreach or education component – that should help the research professionals value ed, right?

    P.S. Are there researchers who do not value the contributions of Carl Sagan and Philip Morrison?

    I’m not saying it isn’t done or it can’t be done. I’m pointing out some difficulties.

    How can we work together to overcome these hurdles?

  7. Emily Almond March 17, 2010 at 6:03 pm #

    I am an open-source software project manager (and former journalist) by trade and have come to call myself an amateur astronomer largely due to your podcast and blog.

    I have become an avid reader of popular science books and have lately started dialing down from general science to astronomy to astrophysics now to theoretical astrophysics and routinely reading about the battle between the cyclical vs. big bang theories. It has been deeply gratifying to know that I can educate myself to this extent without having to have pursued an advanced degree in physics.

    That said, I have a Masters in Information
    Architecture, and as I read your post above, it occurs to me that there are so many ways to contribute to the sciences that have become our passion – so many ways to converge our talents to create new disciplines.

    Astro-info-architect-reporter? Physics-project-manager-writer? Jabberwocky?Who knows!

    So, as I continue to mull over how my path may evolve, I want to congratulate you for paving the way.. your ability to synthesize the science, the ideas behind the science and the ability to communicate and entertain with both in mind is groundbreaking.

    I look forward to what we all are becoming.

  8. Nicole March 23, 2010 at 9:45 pm #

    Unfortunately, when I started grad school almost five* years ago, it’s still the prevailing picture of astronomers as being observers or theorists in a field, and outreach is not that important. Teaching, I think, is becoming more important as the job market gets tighter and tighter. I’m lucky to be in a department with a rich outreach component and and advisor who encourages that interest of mine. I’m really glad to see it becoming more formalized in the broader community, however, so I’ll definitely follow up on CAP!

    *Crap! I’ve been here 5 years already?!

  9. Nicole March 23, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    I definitely need to check out the journals, especially in light of being clueless on how to track performance and results (and I think our elementary school outreach group’s funding agencies really want to see that)… but are there other ways that an interested but possibly already oversubscribed grad student can get involved? 😉

  10. Richard Gay May 27, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    How amusing. In a statistical population, virtually EVERY data point is a departure from the average! Silly to use outliers as means to try and subvert statistical results.

  11. Adrian July 19, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

    I had an idea and I would like its practically verified. Here are my predicates:
    1) Light can be bent by intense gravity.
    2) Light reflected from the Earth could be bent if it encounters the gravity around a Black Hole as it travels out into space.
    3) If it enters the hole at the right place in theory it could be turned around 180 degrees and exit the black hole traveling back to the Earth.

    Assuming we could detect this light it would allow us to see back into the past, depending on the distance from earth of the hole. For example, it is was 30 million LYs away then we could look back 60M light years into Earth’s past.

    Is this possible?

  12. Adrian July 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    Sorry I meant 60 million years into the past.

  13. Daniel Leeuwenberg October 31, 2010 at 7:46 am #

    I…”those who can’t do research teach”…
    Anyone can do research, but very few can teach in a way that brings the subject to life, makes it inspiring, awe-provoking, endearing, hungry for more like you can. i think you’re a totally kick-ass educator !
    My Father is in education (music-theory) and an authority in his field. He always states that he learns more from his students often than they do from him. And in my forays into education (Computer- and electronics-tech in music) I found he couldn’t be more right…
    Have you ever clanged heads with Kirsten Sanford ? Seems to me you two Gals have similar missions, and are equally good at it.
    One more thing: I find it soooo refreshing to listen to some female educators like you and Kiki, seems to me that the Girlie-vibe is so much missing in science, Men tend to be so dry an qualitative in their presentation (exceptions, like Kiki’s sidekick Jason excluded), while it aparently takes a Woman to bring subjects to life, to make the connection between teh mind and the soul; You can make me feel sorry for a poor limping spaceship or dying star, or borderline happy for little atoms …’vibrating their li’ l hearts out’… like no man ever could…
    Keep it up, you’re doing a wonderful, beautiful, lovely, heartwarming job !

  14. Daniel Leeuwenberg October 31, 2010 at 7:50 am #

    Of course I meant Quantitative, not qualitative… Two more exceptions that made me very happy with my i-pod: Richard Pogge and Alex Fillipenko.

  15. Daniel Leeuwenberg October 31, 2010 at 7:56 am #

    And of course good old Richard Feynmann and Carl Sagan…
    And of course Mr Mind-over-Matter Stephen Hawking… Discovery just started re-broadcasting the mindblowing R.H’s Universe… oh joy, happy happy !
    Wish some network would do the same with Cosmos, even though I have it on my hard drive…
    Any change you’ll produce a magnum opus like such someday ? Please do !

  16. Karlene Disalvatore April 20, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences. Prehistoric cultures left behind astronomical artifacts such as the Egyptian monuments and Nubian monuments, and early civilizations such as the Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Indians, Iranians and Maya performed methodical observations of the night sky. However, the invention of the telescope was required before astronomy was able to develop into a modern science. Historically, astronomy has included disciplines as diverse as astrometry, celestial navigation, observational astronomy, and the making of calendars, but professional astronomy is nowadays often considered to be synonymous with astrophysics.”

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