Astronomy Education Resources

As NASA Administrator Dan Goldin has noted, young students are especially interested in three things: ghosts, dinosaurs, and space. We need to capitalize on the interest in space to develop and encourage a continuing understanding and curiosity about space-related issues from the grade school level through adulthood. Unfortunately, because astronomy is usually only offered in college as a lower division elective or as a specialized area of graduate study, most pre-college educators are uncomfortable teaching space sciences in the classroom. Additionally, the particularly dynamic nature of the field leaves educators with materials that are out of date and inadequate. In the framework of the new educational pedagogy focusing on hands-on activities, this paper presents a discussion of technologically innovative resources for the space science classroom (primarily at the high school level) which utilize hands-on activities for the students. The discussion will focus in five areas: major high-tech programs (which require specialized equipment in the schools), national and local workshops available to educators, hands-on activities commercially available, educational astronomical resources, and examples of hands-on activities developed and expanded upon by teachers and astronomers attending an educational workshop in Hawaii from 1993-1995.


With the general level of public scientific literacy declining, there is a large push to raise scientific literacy standards. This has been reflected in a White House policy (?) issued in 1994 which stated that a goal of the United States in this area is to both produce high-quality scientists and engineers to meet the needs of the next century and to increase the level of scientific literacy in the general public by the turn of the century. Astronomy is a unique field in that it evokes a fundamental interest in exploration and the search for our origins which has long been rooted in humankinds curiosity - perhaps more so than in any other field. This public appeal, combined with the general interdisciplinary nature of the field gives it a high potential as an educational avenue for increasing scientific awareness. However, in these tight fiscal times, many educational programs are focusing on areas which can provide practical training for future job-related skills. This is particularly pronounced in areas such as Hawaii, where for many public high- schools, only 20-30% of the students may continue on to higher education. Whereas some may consider space science to be somewhat esoteric, the fascination that the field holds for young people in particular, suggests that while for many astronomy might not provide practical on-the-job training skills, the critical thinking skills and motivation which can be developed in students through space science and astronomy education are probably far more valuable assets than specific skills.

Astronomy and space science education in the United States falls primarily in the middle school level, appearing generally as a unit in the Earth Sciences classes. For younger age groups, while there may be some introduction to the members of the solar system, the cognitive development of elementary school children is not sufficiently advanced to understand the spatial concepts inherent with the three- dimensional nature of the field. Unlike other areas of science which get recycled again in the high school years, unless there is a special interest on the part of the teacher, astronomy and space science often do not re-appear in high school. Students have their first real experience with astronomy as an introductory level course in the Universities, and a large number of students take these astronomy courses each year as a means of fulfilling science distribution requirements. Out of these masses, a few continue on to do research in the space sciences. While there is no question that the US is a leader in the production of research scientists in space science, we are not doing a good job at maintaining a strong science literacy in the general population. This is due in part to the fact that most astronomy is introduced rather late in the educational process, in large lecture-style classes which are not as conducive to hands-on learning. Studies have shown that the inquiry-based, hands on learning is a far more effective concept (ref) to develop meaningful understanding for most students than the traditional lecture-based curricula.

Unfortunately, since most middle and high-school educators have themselves gone through this same system, they feel unprepared to introduce innovative space science resources into curricula at younger levels. Additionally, the field is particularly dynamic, and those teachers who do include space science in their curricula quickly find themselves out-of-date with neither the time, resources or the knowledge as to how to keep up in this rapidly evolving field. There has been a recent explosion in the availability of new, innovative materials which reflect the current understanding in space science, and which incorporate the new educational standards (ref for this). The purpose of this paper is to highlight sources of information on how to obtain these materials for the classroom.

The resource materials presented on this web page were collected and developed as a result of an astronomical educational workshop for top high-school teacher-student pairs held in Hawaii from 1993-1995. The goals of the week-long program were three-fold: (i) to make high-school teachers (in science and mathematics) aware of the hands-on material available and train them in the use of the materials; (ii) to provide students with information and what careers in science are like; and (iii) to create an awareness in Hawaii of the forefront astronomical research being conducted using the Mauna Kea Observatory facilities one of the worlds premier observing sites. The workshop theme, Toward Other Planetary Systems (TOPS) was chosen in part because it is a focus of research in Hawaii, and in part because of the interdisciplinary nature of the topic which incorporates astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology. The program was a mixture of lectures, demonstrations, hands-on activities, field trips and research. Guest speakers, totaling upwards of 30 per year, included faculty from the University of Hawaii system, scientists and engineers from the observatories, scientists from other research organizations on the mainland, education specialists, local teachers, and graduate students. One of the great strengths of the program was the presence of the high school students which greatly facilitated the learning process for the teachers who could see first hand how the activities they tried were received by students. The students also benefited from working along side their teachers in a new capacity as fellow students. The format of the workshop placed the role of the teacher as one of facilitator and fellow student, rather than the all-knowing source of information.

Resource Materials

The resources on this web page include a mixture of high-tech materials and those which do not require advanced technology. The reality is that while many schools have modern equipment, with internet connections to the classroom, there are many areas where resources are minimal. This latter situation is particularly relevant to developing countries, which may be in desperate need of an increase in scientific literacy but which lack any resources to bring innovative materials to the classroom. In many school systems where resources exist, there are no funds available to update and improve the materials. Another common problem which comes with educational fiscal austerity, is that class sizes are becoming larger, and the teachers are being asked to teach more classes. More than financial hardship, one of the major impediments to the introduction of space science materials into the classroom is the lack of space and time. With heavy workloads, teachers cannot be expected to seek out and locate new innovative activities, let alone develop new materials for the classroom.

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Last modified: August 1, 1996