AstroShop Support Resources Education Events Publications Membership News About Us Home
The Astronomical Society of the Pacific


   home > education > resources


Education Topics:







  The Universe in
the Classroom
    Articles on
Education from Mercury
    Other Articles on Education  
  Selected Topical Bibliographies  
      Astronomy Education Bibliography  
      Environmental Issues and Astronomy  
      Women in Astronomy  
      Astronomical Pseudo-Science  
      Moon Resource Guide  
      Science Fiction with Good Astronomy  
      SETI Messages Bibliography  
      Astronomy of Many Cultures Resource Guide  
      Galileo: The Man and His Science  
      Black Holes: An Introductory Resource List  
    Weblinks for
    Astronomy Education Review  
    Space Science Education Resource Directory  

Contact Us


Astronomy Education in the United States


2. The Domains of Astronomy Education

So let us turn from this very quick taste of the problem to the places where solutions might be expected. Some of the programs I will mention briefly below are described in more detail in the Catalog of National Astronomy Education Projects that we have compiled for Project ASTRO (see the web site: National Astronomy Education Projects). I've divided the places where astronomy education takes place into six broad (and somewhat arbitrary) areas:

  • graduate education

  • undergraduate education

  • K-12 education

  • informal science education institutions

  • the world of amateur astronomy

  • the interpreters of astronomy (the media)

table of contents

3. Graduate Education

According to the American Institute of Physics, there were about 175 astronomy and astrophysics PhD's in 1995. Some estimates are that once they are done with their post-doctoral positions (which are still plentiful), and begin searching for permanent jobs, perhaps half will end up in non-traditional astronomy careers because permanent academic or research jobs in our field are so scarce. And even those who are in traditional astronomy careers will increasingly be asked to communicate the results of their work to students, funders, and the public.

What kind of job are we doing in training these graduates of our programs for their future in the competitive world of 21st century science? Many scientific and engineering disciplines (as well as the National Academy of Science) are taking a new look at this question and beginning to urge university departments to broaden the skills with which their students emerge from graduate school. In astronomy, the American Astronomical Society in the early 1990's appointed an Astronomy Education Policy Board, which took on as its first task a nationwide re-examination of graduate training in our field.

Astronomer Eugene Levy, Dean of Science at the University of Arizona, in an eloquent introduction to one of the workshops this Board held on the future of graduate education, pointed out that in this era of shrinking opportunities, academia has for the most part adopted "a posture of studied denial" about the problem. He reminded the group that we have lived through several decades of tremendous growth in both research institutions and colleges and universities in this country. This growth has been fueled both by generous federal spending on science and by the fact that, as a B.A. degree has replaced the high school diploma as the minimum qualifier for many jobs, many more people have gone to college.

The expansion of research funding and higher education has allowed our country to absorb a very high - much greater than replacement level - growth in the number of PhD's. If the growth in research support or the expansion of universities slows (as it now appears to be doing), we will quickly have an oversupply of PhD's in science - just as we already do in some areas of the humanities, for example.

There are several reasons why today's and tomorrow's PhD's in astronomy may find a broader training in science education and communication useful. As we shall see, even those who find traditional research-oriented jobs in our field will increasingly be called upon to participate in educational outreach. Universities are placing increasing teaching demands on their faculty. NASA has begun requiring an educational component to all their future missions and is placing emphasis on how scientists can get involved in leveraging their work for maximum educational benefit. NSF has announced that future research grant proposals will also be evaluated on their value to the nation. And those scientists who obtain jobs in the corporate sector will find that many companies value and reward such abilities as working well within teams, communicating results and proposals effectively, and getting involved in community service to education. Ultimately, some observers are even predicting that Congress or NSF may make continued funding of research in universities and laboratories contingent on these institutions becoming actively involved in assisting K-12 education.

Yet, despite these signs on the horizon, the culture of most of our astronomy departments today clearly follows the research goal: research skill is what is sought out, research skill is what is rewarded. Little attention is paid in most departments to teaching or to making contributions to education in other ways. In some departments, students or faculty members who do take an active interest in education are quietly warned that it may negatively affect their chances for future success, tenure, and promotion. Indeed, graduate school often manages to convey to research students that having to teach is a minor irritant in one's research career that any smart person can learn to put up with, doing the minimum one can.

A few departments make a serious effort to help their students become better teachers, but most follow the old prescription for how you teach a kid to swim: throw a graduate student into a pool of lukewarm students and let him fend for himself - he'll soon get the hang of it! A graduate student -- often in his or her very first year - is simply assigned to be a teaching assistant and told (explicitly or implicitly) that teaching is something they can pick up on their own.

This unfortunately means that in many introductory undergraduate courses around the country, the first person non-science students have close contact with in astronomy turns out to be a nervous graduate student who is mostly unprepared for that contact. The resulting experience is often an unsatisfying one for each side. A first step in remedying this situation would be for all astronomy departments to foster a sense that education has value in the training and work of astronomers that is - if not equal - at least within the same order of magnitude as the value they place on research. In some departments that will be harder than finding a snowball on Venus; but in others, the slow winds of change are starting to blow.

Hearing about the difficult employment picture, some departments have started to feel that giving their students a mastery of educational skills could give them a competitive advantage. As more and more narrowly-focused research graduates are unable to get jobs doing astronomy research, professors may come to the realization that success in training their PhD's does not require that all of them turn out to be clones of their advisor and his or her research colleagues.

In a few places, such as the University of Chicago, graduate students themselves have begun to organize educational outreach efforts into local schools. A number of graduate students and post-docs around the country have joined Project ASTRO, the national effort to set up partnerships between astronomers and local 4th-9th grade school teachers (more on this below.) And a number of universities are now starting or considering special masters programs that are not failed research PhD's, but will combine astronomy and education, and specifically prepare students for teaching, planetarium education, or science communication.

These are small first steps, and we, as a community, need to try and encourage more efforts along these lines.

table of contents

<< previous page | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | next page >>

home | about us | news | membership | publications

events | education | resources | support | astroshop | search

Privacy & Legal Statements | Site Index | Contact Us

Copyright ©2001-2012 Astronomical Society of the Pacific