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Astronomy Education in the United States

 

D. Nontechnical Books for Adults

In 1993, roughly 45,000 new books were published in the U.S. [Publishers Weekly, Mar. 7, 1994, data from R.R. Bowker Co.] Of these, about 2,000 were classified as science, although I suspect that the librarians who do this classifying may well include some pseudoscience in this category. Such books, written by both scientists and science journalists, can be an important way that educated laypeople learn about new developments and ideas in science.

When a really excellent book comes along, such as Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos or First Light, it can give laypeople marvelous insight into how astronomy is really done today. A best seller, such as Cosmos or The Brief History of Time (which by the end of 1993 had sold over 5.5 million copies worldwide), can turn many people on to astronomy, although such initial enthusiasm generally needs more to sustain it than a single book can provide.

On this front, there is good news and bad news: the good news is that fine books in popular astronomy are still finding a publisher; the bad news is that these publishers rarely promote or advertise such books with any energy or enthusiasm. Instead, they reserve their advertising budgets for the books they consider "guaranteed big sellers", a phrase which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, some of the best astronomy books of the last decade have sunk without a trace in the vast murky ocean of modern publishing. The recent trend of mergers among publishers and book stores, and the resulting reduction in the variety of books being effectively marketed, will only serve to make this situation worse, I suspect.

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E. Children's books

One area of astronomy education that has received very little attention are children's books, despite the fact that these can have a strong influence on youngsters. Several astronomers and science writers have produced whole series of astronomy books for kids, among them the late biochemist Isaac Asimov, the former director of the Hayden Planetarium Franklyn Branley, British astrophysicist David Darling, the current director of the Griffith Observatory Ed Krupp, the associate director of the Pacific Science Center Dennis Schatz, journalist Seymour Simon, and NASA aerospace specialist Gregory Vogt. Alas, mixed in with these excellent and reliable books — often on specific single topics in astronomy — are a host of muddle-headed, error-filled books written by people with little science background and published by organizations and publishers who should (in many cases) know better.

At the ASP, we have collected and reviewed hundreds of children's books on astronomy and have published recommendations for the best of them in The Universe at Your Fingertips Resource Notebook. But it would be nice if there were more of a concerted effort to review and recognize children's books that do a good job in teaching astronomy.

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F. The World Wide Web

Here truly is a realm where the good, the bad, and the ugly coexist; no medium is as democratic and thus as "un-refereed" as the web. Some excellent sites for astronomy education coexist with the most pernicious and misleading nonsense. I might point to the fact that in fall 1996, a single mistaken observation by a vociferous observer with no serious background in astronomy, claiming that Comet Hale-Bopp was being followed by a giant object, was then spread via the Web, the Internet, and late night talk radio shows to all corners of the world (and may have played a significant role in the Heaven's Gate suicides). Many of us have probably had to deal with questions from this bizarre incident, and it illustrates that at a time when conspiracy theories are high on the list of public entertainment and paranoia, the unfettered medium of the Web brings dangers as well as opportunities.

There are voices among astronomers and astronomy educators that see the Web as the best solution to the problems I have outlined above, and look forward to the day when all American schools will have Web access. And there is no question that the Web has enormous potential in disseminating images and information to a wide range of end users. Many of us, however, have a number of doubts about Web based solutions and projects.

First of all, one must take with a cosmic grain of salt the statistics being bandied about indicating how many schools are connected to the Web. More careful surveys (and discussions with teachers) reveal that the fact that the school may have one computer (in the principal's office, say) with a modem and Web connection does not guarantee that the average teacher or student will have access, time, training, and encouragement to use it. In fact, the teachers who make best use of the Web often wind up doing so from their home computers and on their own time.

And while there are now some superb sites which encourage and facilitate age-appropriate, hands-on, inquiry-based activities in astronomy, many other sites are designed either with an astronomy graduate student or advanced physics teacher in mind (making very little sense to the average browser) or are put together by an enthusiast with minimal science background and often filled with misunderstandings. Surfing the Web may be a delightful way to spend an afternoon (much like video games, and sometimes with the same hypnotic effect), but there is no guarantee that educational outcomes will follow unless the surfer has careful guidance.

To be sure, the Web has only been around a short time, and as new tools, new modes of access, and new public attitudes develop around it, its efficacy and outreach capabilities may yet make it one of the most important areas of informal science education. But it might be useful to bear in mind that similar claims (that it would transform education and save the world) were made for television in its early days, and those promises have now given way to serious concerns about the mindlessness of much of television programming.

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