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Astronomy Education in the United States

 

9. Conclusion

In this quick summary, I've focused on the problems and challenges before us, in part because I wanted to give the realistic context for those who set out to make contributions in astronomy education. The task of improving science education and science literacy in this country is a staggering one, and there is no single solution, and no simple shortcut, no inexpensive pathway to getting it done. Without picking on any project in particular, I would just note that anyone who tells you that all the problems in education will be solved if we (for example) teach all 10th graders the joys of computer image processing, doesn't live in the real world, I am afraid.

The good news is that I am not the only one speaking in occasionally despairing tones about the situation. Throughout the country, scientists, engineers, and educators in many fields are becoming concerned about these problems and looking for ways we can change the six cultures I've described and to focus more attention on education within those cultures.

In astronomy these efforts are really just beginning, and those of us involved in educational reform, whichever of the communities that I've discussed we belong to, often feel isolated and overwhelmed. At the present time, there is no effective network tying workers in astronomy education together - no single journal or newsletter, no organization, and no regular meetings. Thus there is little coordination and exchange of information among people - even those with the same job titles. The wheel is being re-invented over and over again, good materials appear and disappear with unpredictable periods. And, in some places, there continues to be strong peer pressure against serious time-consuming involvement in astronomy education.

The standards of work in the field vary tremendously, because people drop in and out of being interested, often as their own budget or time pressures dictate. Unlike research astronomy, where one generally feels pretty ashamed to make a suggestion in a research field unless one has studied the existing literature, in astronomy education anyone feels that he can pontificate, publish, ask for a grant - often without making any effort to acquaint himself with what has already been done.

Several of us have suggested that either the American Astronomical Society or the Astronomical Society of the Pacific actively create a Division for Astronomy Education (which strongly encourages - by means of lower dues - membership of active workers in all six of these domains), but so far these suggestions have not born much fruit. The AAS has recently recruited a paid Education Coordinator (in addition to its unpaid Education Officer) in the person of Doug Duncan (U. of Chicago), and is looking at how to bring about institutional changes that may encourage its members to do more in astronomy education.

Larry Rudnick tells me that at the University of Minnesota they have abolished the undergraduate education major; each student preparing to be a teacher must major in some other discipline. The University of Arizona has offered a masters degree in astronomy for working school teachers; many of their graduates are already leaders in astronomy or science education. Sonoma State University is offering a bachelors in astronomy for non-scientists: historians of science, journalists, planetarium educators, etc. We need more such liberal arts degrees that still offer rigorous training in science.

To conclude, I'd like to make the simple suggestion that everyone in astronomy devote a minimum of one percent of his or her time to improving astronomy education for nonscientists: if we take a 40 hour work-week and 52 weeks in a year, one percent works out to 21 hours a year. That's seven three-hour sessions with a local teacher, that's preparing or giving a workshop for all the graduate students and postdocs in an astronomy department about recent developments in education and things they can do to help; that's getting involved with a campus committee to reform graduate requirements for students who are going to be the teachers of tomorrow; that's spending several afternoons with the staff of the local planetarium; that's arranging a meeting of all the local community college instructors of astronomy, etc. etc.

I urge everyone to do this not only out of a sense of duty or compassion. The ominous news from recent developments in our nation's capitol is that the unwritten compact through which the federal government has supported science and universities for the sake of their value to national security shows signs of breaking down. New generations of our leaders (like new generations of our students) do not feel immense loyalty or warmth toward science. And their apathy may well allow very serious cuts in the budgets that support so much of our scientific enterprise.

As Neal Lane (the NSF Director) said at the Jan 1996 AAS Meeting; " If you don't take it as one of your professional responsibilities to inform your fellow citizens about the importance of the science and technology enterprise, then [it may well turn out] that public support - critical to sustaining it - [one day] isn't going to be there!"

Our crisis in the public understanding of science is like a disease that has slowly attacked our country over the years. If it is allowed to fester untreated for much longer, the body politic will surely send its own antibodies to the source of irritation, and the resulting "cure" may be worse than anything scientists can now imagine. Thus the work we do today in science education may well turn out to be the single most important thing that can be done to assure the continued good health of the science of astronomy in the United States.

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References:

For an annotated list of books and articles on astronomy education, see my selective bibliography on this subject, on the web at: Astronomy Education: A Selected Bibliography

I would be very interested in receiving comments and suggestions for future versions of this paper. Please contact me at the addresses given on the first page.

Andrew Fraknoi

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