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Astronomy Education in the United States

 

6. Informal Education Institutions

Much of the learning of astronomy in this country is done outside the formal classroom, in institutions and through organizations that sometimes interact with the schools (through class visits, for example) and sometimes act independently. These include planetaria, science museums, observatory visitor centers, NASA facilities, youth groups, and many similar organizations. I can examine each category only briefly here, and want to comment mainly on the organizational strengths that they bring to the task of astronomy education.

A. Planetaria

There are approximately 1,100 planetaria in North America, visited by millions of people each year.) About 30% of these serve school groups only, while about 60% do both school and public shows. For many youngsters, a planetarium visit is their first (and in some cases only) introduction to astronomy. The quality of this introduction can vary widely, depending on the skill and background of the presenter and how the planetarium environment is used. Nevertheless, most children have a fond recollection of their planetarium experience, and for many children in cities, it may be the only time they really experience a dark night sky.

Planetarium educators are organized into a number of regional organizations, and into the International Planetarium Society (although not everyone belongs to these groups.) My main observation of the field is that planetarium educators tend to be somewhat isolated from the astronomy research and even college education community; this can occasionally lead to some problems in keeping up with current science, but I don't think these are a major cause for concern. More important is a sense that planetarium educators get of being peripheral to astronomy, despite the large numbers of people for whom they serve as primary contact with the world of astronomy. I think it would be very useful for the main astronomical societies to make more of an effort to involve and get involved with the planetarium enterprise; the AAS has recently taken some first steps in this direction.

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B. Museums

Many science museums have astronomy exhibits, where visitors can read or participate in activities relating to astronomy or at least space exploration. Many museums also sponsor youth and education programs after school or on weekends. As in planetaria, there are many museum visitors who are first exposed to modern astronomy through such programs. Science museum educators also have an organization, called the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), with offices in Washington. The same comments I made above for planetaria would apply to astronomy staff at many science museums as well. And astronomers and astronomy research institutions could interact profitably with a local science museum from time to time. The museum could gain access to recent results, images, and surplus equipment, while the astronomy institutions could gain local exposure and be able to demonstrate their commitment to public education to funding agencies.

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C. Observatory Visitor Centers

A number of the major observatories are expanding or introducing visitors centers at their sites, many of which have an educational as well as a tourist component. Some of these centers accommodate a large number of visitors; for example, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory center on Kitt Peak has some 100,000 visitors per year. An especially good center has been built at the Lowell Observatory, where you can experience a computer simulation of a night at the observatory. A new center has been put in at Arecibo in Puerto Rico, with bilingual educational programs. Of course, there are budget problems that prevent much expansion in this area, but my feeling is that more cooperation among observatories and more communication among those of us working in astronomy education would have a salutary effect on these efforts.

Another aspect of the work of observatories is responding to requests for information from the public. Some observatories have developed excellent materials of their own, others use the materials developed by such groups as the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, NASA, NOAO, and Sky & Telescope magazine. It would be helpful to have a national database of available resources for those whose responsibility is responding to public inquiries.

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D. NASA Centers and Divisions

NASA has extensive efforts to help in science education, on many fronts, but the agency is so large, and has so many centers and divisions that the education situation is complicated. My impression is that even NASA people don't know what all the different branches, missions, and centers are doing, and there still much less coordination among the many different programs than an outside observer might expect.

NASA's Education Division produces a lot of educational materials, mostly about space flight, but some about astronomy and space science. But because of government regulations that prevent the government from competing with private industry, NASA distributes these materials according to rules that can only be described as quantum mechanical. If you happen to be at the right place at the right time, you can get it free; if not, you probably can't even learn the material exists. No database exists of these materials (at least as far as I can find) and no one seems to be responsible for keeping the best ones in print or updated.

NASA supports a wide-spread network of K-12 teacher resource centers in a variety of locations around the country (the centers are of varying size, quality, and effectiveness). The best of them are at the NASA Centers themselves and can be important sources of information and visuals for teachers about NASA programs for educators. There is also a national network of Space Grant Colleges and Universities whose educational programs also can vary all over the map in approach and effectiveness.

In part out of frustration with the Education Division, and in part in response to Congressional pressure and its own interest in education, the NASA's Office of Space Science (OSS) has in recent years already undertaken an independent series of initiatives in education, which include giving several million to the Space Telescope Science Institute for public outreach and instituting a series of small grants for educational projects called the IDEA grant program. These smaller IDEA grants have been awarded to a number of astronomy and space science institutions over the last few years, but there has been little evaluation of the effectiveness of the grants or widespread dissemination of the resulting materials.

Recently, as we have pointed out, NASA has begun requiring that all new missions have a built-in education component, and it will be interesting to see whether and how the resulting infusion of funds will change the way space science education is done in this country. The concern that some of us have is that many NASA projects are simply striking off on their own, and not coordinating, and often can spend their resources creating materials for which the demand exists mostly in the imagination of the scientists, not in the real classrooms of this country. (How much demand is there really for information on anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background at the 4th grade level?)

But now, a very welcome program which involves both coordination and leveraging of OSS educational resources is being put in place under the directorship of Dr. Jeff Rosendhal. Two reports, Partners in Education: A Strategy for Integrating Education and Public Outreach into NASA's Space Science Programs (Mar. 1995) and Implementing the Office of Space Science Education/Public Outreach Strategy (Oct. 1996) have been issued and are well worth reading for their analysis of the situation and novel proposals. OSS has just established a network of educational forums and brokers/facilitators around the country - institutions which will work to coordinate and leverage the work and materials that individuals or groups produce in astronomy and space science education to make sure they reach the widest audiences. It will be very interesting to see how these NASA initiatives will play out in the years to come. In the past, NASA has often played the "Lone Ranger" in science education - proceeding as if no one else existed in this field. The new era of cooperation and coordination that seems on the horizon may mean that everyone - NASA and the rest of us - will benefit from the sharing of resources and ideas.

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E. Other Institutions

Other astronomy education programs that take place outside the formal school systems include the Challenger Centers with their space flight simulators for kids; the Young Astronauts clubs around the country, which occasionally do astronomy activities; scout and other youth groups, which have inspired many youngsters through astronomy merit badges and similar programs; and summer astronomy and space science camps, such as the one Don McCarthy and his colleagues have been running at the University of Arizona.

In response to some of the crises in K-12 education that I discussed above, a number of interesting grass-roots efforts are springing up to supplement science in the schools with after-school and summer activities, sometimes in connection with a local science center, youth group, or community organization. At the present time, there is unfortunately no central clearing house that would keep track of and disseminate the results of such efforts or coordinate their activities.

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