ASP-EPO: Day One

Posted By Pamela on Sep 5, 2007 | 7 comments

(I’m on a bad connection and will add links later.)

Another day, another conference. From Dragon*Con, I crossed half-way across the country to Chicago to attend the 119th Meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific on “EPO and a Changing World.” This morning I’m sitting in a session presented by astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson (the astronaut who repaired Solar Max) on things that need to happen for education to be made more effective. He is focusing largely (and I feel correctly) on the need to support our teachers by providing them training, content, and infrastructure.

Intriguing comment of the day: “We should only teach a geometric explanation of the lunar phases. Let’s pick a grade, say 5th grade, and only teach the lunar phases there. Think about multiplication of 2-digit numbers – they do that in the 3rd grade. Let’s teach lunar phases in 5th grade.” This particular comment caught my attention because I am personally annoyed at how much time in astronomy classes in all grades are spent learning lunar phases. The cosmos is a huge place with lots of amazing detail waiting to be learned. Let’s move beyond celestial motions and lunar phases to study the stars themselves and the universe of galaxies they orbit within.

Throughout his talk, Nelson stressed that we need to train educators in both teaching strategies based on how people learn and we need to train them in the content. We do a fairly good job providing them with training in pedagogy, but if you look at the standard elementary-education curriculum, the amount of content in specific subjects is very limited. Once their initial college education is complete, teachers must continue learning on their own and through continuing education programs. That alone, however, isn’t enough. When we give them course materials, we can’t expect them simply know how to teach what we give them, but instead we need to provide them all the background material as well. In an example, he (using his hands) indicated that the student materials for one particular activity is only 1inch (~2.5 cm) thick, while the teacher material is more like a 8 inches (~20cm) thick. This teacher packet saves the teacher from needing to spend time googling and in the library and pre-vets the good materials and puts it straight into the hands of the people who need it most.

We also need to rethink how we are teaching our teachers. We can’t stick them in general lecture-based, giant survey courses in science and expect them to learn what they need to learn to effectively teach astronomy or any other science. This is a two-fold problem. 1) Lecture isn’t an effective way to teach anyone anything – we learn best in cooperative learning environments where people learn by doing and discussing, and I suspect most lecturers will yell at classroom members who are doing or discussing while lecture is in progress. This stifles learning. 2) Elementary school classrooms do use activity-based learning, and if we teach teachers using lectures and expect them to use activities, we aren’t teaching them by example. This is very disconnected. By teaching teachers using activities, discussions, and small amounts of lecture (you can’t get away from it entirely), we can teach them more effectively, and give them examples of things they can do in their classrooms.

As the EPO community puts on our weekend workshops and our outreach materials, we need to put all these pieces together. This website certainly isn’t there – a blog is very much a lecture, although the comment role seems to do a good job encouraging “after class” dialogue. Astronomy Cast is in the same boat. This talk directly challenged people like me to find ways to encourage people like you to not just “listen” to content, but to also reach out and regularly do astronomy through projects like Galaxy Zoo.

Good speakers can be problematic: they leave me wishing I had more time to do more.


  1. my $0.02… schools, especially elementary, middle and high schools, need to reach out to the amateur community for help and support in teaching astronomy concepts. It’s one thing to explain the Sun, magnetic fields, sunspots, prominences, and granulation, and it’s another thing to get the students out behind the eyepiece of a solar telescope to see for themselves.

    By the same token, the amateur community needs to reach out to the schools. I’ve found that when I offer that the teachers are overjoyed, and have a good idea of where to slot in an observing session within their curriculum.

  2. My astronomy club has someone give a talk every meeting. Twice a month, or 24 times a year. In a given year, there are usually 24 different speakers. Most of the talks are basically lectures. More often than not, there are graphics on screen, sometimes with audio other than the speaker. One guy uses chalk on a chalk board.

    The talks are given by members who often do not know the subject in advance – they research it for the talk. There are often questions, and some are better than others at fielding them.

    Graphics or not, interactive questions or not, they’re still lectures.

    We have also made an effort to bring scopes out to schools. Solar scopes work well during the day, but there’s only so much you can do with one object – even with h-alpha.

    We also have programs for observing at night with various scouting organizations (boy scouts, girl scouts, brownies, cub scouts, and so on). And, of course, we have public events. For example, we had over 300 out for the Persieds this year. We had several talks for those who arrived before dark.

    We also have a relationship with the local science museum. We bring scopes out for Astronomy Day, but other events like Mars oppositions.

    Our club has an outreach goal. We’re constantly looking for an audience. Scouts are looking for something to do, so it’s pretty easy to get them to come out. They’re amazed that we do this for free. Schools are a bit harder. You need at least one enthusiastic teacher. If you don’t know astronomy really well (as a teacher) it’s not that likely you’ll be enthusiastic about it. We’ve had some success, but not, for example, dozens of schools.

  3. Sounds like an interesting session Pamela. I certainly had a great time at the ASP Meeting in Tucson two years ago but couldn’t make this one. I think you are correct in that to maximise the impact we as astronomy educators can have it is essential to devote considerable time and resources to working with teachers.
    One-off sessions with them can initiate a spark but for long-term change teachers need to engage in on-going professional development and feel that they have the support of astronomy education professionals. We have been monitoring the impact of the various teacher pd programs we run and in general see the greatest impact (in terms of change in teacher classroom behaviour and on-going engagement in astronomy/science) when schools send two or more teachers to workshops or teachers on consecutive years. Effective professional development of teachers does take time. Whilst I see the one-hour type workshops I run at other events as worthwhile and useful their main purpose is to encourage participants to follow-up by attending one of longer workshops.
    Most teachers, even science and physics teachers, have no or minimal training in astronomy so naturally are more likely to be less comfortable teaching it than other areas of the science syllabus that they are more familiar with. Effective PD involves a blend of the pedagogy and the science. After all, astronomy is exciting so we need to be able to convey this teachers if they in turn are going to enthuse their students.
    Enjoy the rest of the conference, wish I was there!

  4. Tonight was “Back to School Night” at my daughters’ middle school so I buttonholed the gifted services teacher (my eldest is one of the gifted ones) and offered to do either daytime solar astronomy with the PST for the kids or night time with the 10″ Newtonian. She was delighted to have yet another thing to do, especially with the 8th graders who haven’t opted for a field trip as of yet.

    The school is (unfortunately) studded with the dreaded “wall packs” so I’ll have to find some way to get the admin. to get them turned off if we do night time work… This might not be very easy to do, policy manuals might get in the way… -Sigh-

  5. Richard:

    When I do a nighttime program at one of the schools I simply go out into the middle of the field (if they have one), as far away from the lights as I can get. I know others who set up home-made portable glare shields made of PVC pipe and canvas drop cloths.

  6. I recently had the opportunity to work with some middle-to-high school science teachers as a scientist on loan from my biotech company. The problems are much more deep-seated and serious than anyone seems to realize. While there may be exceptions, the folks I met had no relationship at all to the scientific endeavor. They refused to stray from the exact wording and content of a huge, poorly organized text book or from the most sacred “curriculum.” To them science was no different than gym or home economics, and they certainly had no personal commitment to it. The schools are so committed to dealing with the many special and protected classes of children, retirement bound teachers, and clueless politicians, that they don’t really do much education. And that’s not going to change.

    I think the real engagement with future scientists will occur outside of this environment. Keep pushing those websites and podcasts.

  7. Astrogeek:
    Fore sure I’ll be out in the playing field, waaaaay out! I’ll have to go over there some evening and uh, scope it out. (Ugh!) Just to see where the worst offenders are and aren’t.
    In Virginia we have the “Standards of Learning” called SOLs (**** out of luck? Maybe…) that have the teachers in a hidebound tizzy. They teach to the test and often little else. But get this: the astronomy section of the SOLs consider all nebulae to be star forming regions. All of them. Planetary Nebulae? The Veil Nebula? The Crab Nebula? Apparently they are star forming regions. If you consider them anything else you’ll be graded as wrong.
    There’s so much to do and so little time… But we gotta start somewhere and getting outside with kids and scopes is a start. I’ll be at the NRAO Green Bank visitors center tomorrow with my PST solar scope doing my bit!


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