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Astronomy Education in the United States

 

4. Undergraduate Education

In this section, I want to discuss educating non-science majors as part of some general education program, and not the undergraduate education of scientists. As we saw, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of people getting college degrees in recent decades, something few us who took going to college for granted really appreciate enough.

Before World War II, only 8% of Americans went to college; today more than half will get a bit of college education, and about a third actually graduate from college. In 1950, about 500,000 college degrees were awarded in the country (432,000 bachelors, 58,000 masters, 6,000 PhD's). By 1995, 1.7 million degrees were awarded, among them almost 1.2 million bachelors, 75,000 medical legal and other professional degrees, 377,000 masters, 41,000 PhD's. [U.S. Dept of Education: Digest of Education Statistics, 1996.]

There are some 2,200 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., plus about 1,500 two-year colleges (but some of these are technical training schools, so that the number of two-year colleges as we would think of them may be closer to 1200.) In 1997, according to the U.S. Dept of Education, about 15 million students were enrolled in some institution of higher education, from community college to research university. And we keep learning beyond our younger years: In 1994-95, out of a total US adult population of 190 million, the U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics reported that 76 million had taken some sort of adult education or training course in the last 12 months. (That's an impressive figure: almost 40% of the population!)

No one quite knows how many students take an introductory astronomy course each year. I surveyed textbook authors and publishers who keep track of this sort of statistics and the best estimate I can come up with is that roughly 200,000 students take astronomy in the U.S. per year. (The one hard figure I could get in this area was from the American Institute of Physics. So far, they only survey degree granting physics and astronomy institutions, and those reported in 1994-95 a combined introductory astronomy enrollment of about 155,000. Given that many smaller introductory courses are taught at places where physics and astronomy degrees are not granted -- such as many community colleges, evening adult schools, etc., this figure is in accord with the publishers' estimates.)

And how good are the introductory survey courses we teach? How well do they convey the excitement and the methods of science to undergraduates? Are the techniques and tools we use to teach them appropriate to the kinds of students who are taking these classes? As a new textbook author, I have spent the last two years thinking about these issues and worry that we often teach our non-science majors astronomy as if they were just like our science majors but without the good sense to have made a wise career choice. This leaves many of them feeling alienated from science and less supportive of the scientific enterprise than they might otherwise have been.

In fact, the reasoning ability, learning styles, and science and math preparations of our general education students may now be radically different from the students of even just a few decades ago and certainly from those students who choose to major in astronomy or physics. Let me just mention a brief sobering thought about the situation in California. We have three levels of higher education in our state: the elite University of California at the top and the extensive system of over 100 community colleges at the bottom. In between is the California State University System (with 22 campuses and 320,000 students), where students are supposed to have about a B average in high school to get in. In 1994, all entering freshmen at California State Universities were given assessment tests: 49% were not ready in their skills for college-level English and 54% were not able to perform even basic college-level math. I taught introductory astronomy on one of these campuses for over 10 years and the challenges involved in reaching some of these students effectively in a science class are indeed considerable.

A large fraction of the introductory courses in astronomy are taught at community colleges and other institutions where research is not required or expected of faculty. With the help of NASA's IDEA grant program and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, I have begun a systematic survey of these instructors. It is interesting to note that (judging from the first 300 respondents) only 20% of these instructors have an astronomy degree, most do not consider themselves primarily astronomers, most teach one or more other subjects, and most rarely come to meetings of astronomers. Many have teaching loads of 15 units, or five 3-unit classes each and every semester, with small or non-existent budgets, and little opportunity for professional growth. These institutions represent the quiet backwater of astronomy and the instructors of these courses often feel and are left out of the mainstream discussions about astronomy and astronomy education.

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific has begun a series of discussions and symposia at its summer meetings focusing on the teaching of astronomy at non-research-oriented institutions and we invite anyone with an interest in this topic to contact us for more information on how to get involved.

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