(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.