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The Universe At Your Fingertips Activity: Picture an Astronomer

Activity Description
Goals and Tips
Extending the Activity
Astro-Kids Puzzle





Paper and a pencil or crayons for each student.


Why do we have stereotypes about what an astronomer looks like? The reason is obvious: there really are fewer women and minorities working in astronomy - and in all the physical sciences. In the past, there were active barriers that filtered out people of a certain race or gender. For example, two decades ago, the observing proposals of women astronomers were refused at some observatories because "there were no restrooms or sleeping quarters for women". Many of those discriminatory barriers have been broken down, and now women and minorities account for a growing fraction of astronomy graduate students. Unfortunately, this reversal is beginning at a time when there are few jobs for new Ph.D.'s.

Addtional background information and online resources are available in the "Extensions" section for this activity.

Extending the Activity

1. Have students discuss the images of astronomers (or scientists in general) in the media. What gender, race, or age are the astronomers they may have seen in the movies or on TV? Have any of them seen astronomers in the newspaper or on the TV news? What kind of news or stories about astronomy have the students read or seen recently? Is it good for our country that newspapers and TV feature a lot more information about sports stars and movie stars than the real stars?

2. Have students research what preparation is required to become an astronomer. Some frequently asked questions about becoming an astronomer are posted online by the National Optical Astronomy Observatories. An excellent booklet on "A Career in Astronomy" is available from:

The American Astronomical Society
2000 Florida Ave. NW, #400
Washington, DC 20009

3. Have students report on what it is like to do astronomy today. Reports can be orally or in writing, individually or as a team. Your students may be surprised by what they find. For example, much astronomy can be done during the day; many astronomers no longer work at the telescope in an open (and cold) dome, but rather sit comfortably in a heated control room at a computer console; and many astronomers never come near a telescope at all, concentrating instead on creating or refining astronomical theories. As an alternative, you can assign each group a different astronomer whose life and work they can research and report to the class about. A reading list on 20th century astronomers and their work is included in the Resources & Bibliographies section of the Universe at Your Fingertips.

4. Use this activity as preparation for a visit from a local astronomer to your classroom. Be sure the students do the activity before the astronomer comes. During the visit, the astronomer might begin by talking a bit about how he or she first became interested in astronomy. After the visit, give students an opportunity to talk about how the astronomer was similar or different from the mental picture they had before the visit.

5. Try the Astro-Kids Puzzle

Additional background information and online resources

Women in Astronomy: An Introductory Bibliography

From the ASP Mercury magazine: There are about 15 African-American professional astronomers in the United States. Not 15 percent, fifteen. Latinos and Native Americans are similarly underrepresented. Those who make it not only must run the usual gauntlet of school, college, graduate school, and the job market; they must jump extra hurdles that can include poverty, discrimination, isolation, expectations of failure, and the burden of "representing" their ethnic group to their profession and their profession to their ethnic group.

Read more in this Mercury magazine editorial.

Online Resources

The Women's Program Committee at Harvard University has published a 16 page, illustrated guide that highlights the careers of a dozen women involved with astronomy. The brochure is free to students, teachers, guidance councelors and parents.

Michigan Electronic Library: Women and Minorities in the Sciences

University of Chicago: Women and Minorities in the Sciences

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