Astronomy Education in the United States

Andrew Fraknoi, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Ave., San Francisco, CA 94112
E-mail: fraknoiandrew {at} fhda.edu, [Version 2.1; copyright 1998, A. Fraknoi]

This is an updated, expanded version of an invited talk given at the 189th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, held in Toronto, Canada in January 1997. An earlier version was published in Astronomy Education: Current Developments, Future Coordination, edited by J. Percy (1996, Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series).

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Domains of Astronomy Education
3. Graduate Education
4. Undergraduate Education
5. K-12 Education
6. Informal Education Institutions
     A. Planetaria
     B. Museums
     C. Observatory Visitor Centers
     D. NASA Centers and Divisions
     E. Other Institutions
7. Amateur Astronomers
8. Astronomy Interpretation Community
     A. Magazines
     B. Daily Newspapers (Radio/TV News)
     C. Radio and Television Programming
     D. Nontechnical Books for Adults
     E. Children's Books
     F. The World Wide Web
9. Conclusion
10. References

1. Introduction

Let me begin by asking the question: where does astronomy education take place in the United States and Canada? I suspect many of you who teach would say, it takes place in classrooms just like mine. But I want to argue that astronomy education happens in many other places as well:

This is not to say that the classroom is not a vital and large part of the puzzle. In the U.S. for example, formal education is a big business. At all levels, from kindergarten to college, the U.S. in 1997 enrolled 67 million students -- 38 million in grades K-8, 14 million in grades 9-12, and 15 million in colleges and universities. The entire U.S. educational system employs almost 5 million teachers and other staff. The annual cost of the U.S. educational enterprise is almost $500 billion, about 8% of our gross domestic product. Are we getting our money's worth?

In 1988, the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, conducted a survey of a representative sample of 2,041 American adults to get a sense of their scientific literacy. Among the 75 basic science questions was one about the Earth:

1. Does the Earth go around the Sun or the Sun around the Earth? 21% got it wrong and 7% said they did not know
2. The 72% who got it right were then asked what period of time the trip took. 45% got it right, 17% said 1 day, 2% said one month, 8% said they did not know.

This means 94 million people in our country could not correctly say that the Earth went around the Sun AND that it took a year to do so. And astronomy is not alone in being a field about which Americans know little. The Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government reported in 1991 that 47% of US 17-year olds could not convert 9 parts of ten to a percentage and that (in a multiple choice survey) 63% of adult Americans thought that lasers work by focusing sound waves. [Reported in Beardsley, T. "Teaching Real Science" in Scientific American, Oct. 1992, p. 98.]

In September 1993, the Dept. of Education issued the report of a survey on adult literacy in the U.S. In one question, those in the survey were given a calculator, were told the cost a carpet per square yard, and were given the size of a room. The question was, how much should carpet cost to cover the entire room. Even with a calculator, 96% of those interviewed could NOT do it correctly. [See Barber, B. "America Skips School" in Harper's, Nov. 1993, p. 39.]

That's one part of our problem; here is another. In June 1990, the Gallup organization conducted a national survey of beliefs among adult Americans. About one in four said they believed in the basic premise of astrology, and 74% read their horoscopes at least occasionally. 47% thought that UFO's are real, and 27% thought that aliens have actually touched down and visited the Earth.

Now you may laugh at the notion of taking this kind of belief seriously. But if a large number of our citizens (and even our leaders) believes that our lives are governed by magic and superstition, will they feel the same urgency we do about the need for more science and technology education to solve the difficult problems of our age? And if you don't believe that such fiction sciences have an influence, I should perhaps just remind you of the revelation during the Reagan administration, that a San Francisco astrologer named Joan Quigley was given control over the president's schedule during much of his time in the White House.

What makes this kind of widespread belief in pseudoscience and widespread ignorance about science possible? Greedy and ignorant media, cynical publishers, and scientists sticking their heads in the sand all bear some of the responsibility, but our system of education is certainly a main culprit. Many teachers, especially at the elementary level, just don't have adequate training in science and the scientific method. Thus it is a lot easier and less frightening for them to teach as little science as possible or to teach science out of the textbook. And many high schools in the U.S. spent the 1980's relaxing their requirements and offerings in science to the point where we might say they are not just relaxed, they're ASLEEP.

In 1986, the National Science Teachers' Association surveyed the high school teaching scene. To take one example, of the 24,000 high school in the US, about 1/3 offered no physics course at all. Many of the courses that were offered in physics are taught by teachers whose training is in some other field. And of the physics teachers, 82% taught only two or one physics classes in a school year! In the decade since this survey, some tightening of standards has taken place but its effect on overall levels of physics literacy have been small so far.

That same survey showed that in the year of the survey, only 57% of US high school students were enrolled in any science class! 43% were taking no science at all that year! Of the 1990 graduating class, fewer than 50% took a chemistry class, and about 20% took physics. (In more recent surveys, this rose to about 24%, touted by some observers as a marvelous step forward!) Contrast that with other countries where students take three science classes every year of high school.

A 1985 survey by the Stanford School of Education revealed an interesting fact about the roots of the problem. A typical elementary school student in the US spends about 25 hours per week in instructional activities (that by itself is sobering). But of those 25 hours, how much time does a student spend on science? What would you guess ... a fifth, an eighth? The answer turned out to be 44 minutes or about 3% -- and much of that on learning vocabulary rather than discovering ideas.

But I want to follow these sobering statistics with a positive thought: survey after survey reveals that when students are asked what topic in science is most interesting to them, the top two winners are consistently dinosaurs and outer space. The fascination of astronomy is a powerful tool for engaging the intellect and imagination of our youngsters, and this is what encourages us to work to make it part of the positive school experience of every child.

Nor do I want to imply that the public is necessarily uniformly hostile toward astronomy (or even science). There is by all indications a tremendous hunger among many people in this country to share in the excitement of scientific discovery and to know more about the fruits of scientific exploration. And astronomy seems to be near the top of the list of topics the public is eager to learn more about. The problem is more that this hunger is so often left unsatisfied, that the meager meal of science gruel set before the public by our educational system and the media, leaves them like Oliver Twist, dreaming of a richer repast.

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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:

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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.

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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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5. K-12 Education

In many ways, the school system in America reminds one of Saturn's rings: from far away, it looks ordered and beautiful, a testament to the organizational powers at work in the system. But the minute you get inside, what you see is the chaos of countless individual pieces, some colliding, some moving together, some all knotted up. And what are all the pieces doing ultimately - going in circles of course!

I've already mentioned some of the serious problems in science education in our schools -- those problems are, of course, only a tiny subset, of the much larger problems confronting the entire educational system. One legacy of our frontier past is that the US education scene consists of many fiercely independent empires. Fifty states have different rules and requirements; and there are 16,000 school districts in the country, in many of which local school boards maintain their own priorities and regulations with a grim determination.

This means that innovation and improvement in one place often has little chance of spreading. Even on the national level, there is little push for consistent, progressive change. And - as can be seen from the abysmally bland and ineffective K-12 textbooks - the system strongly favors the lowest common denominator.

Our Society expects our schools to do much more than merely teach our students basic liberal knowledge. Today, we expect our schools to fulfil many of the functions that were the province of the extended family, of religious institutions, and of the community at large just a few decades ago. As Peter Schrag wrote recently in The New Republic, (Dec. 16, 1991, p. 20): "No country has ever done, or even tried, what this country is now trying: To take such a diverse population of children -- 20% of them from below the poverty level, many of them speaking little English, many from one parent or no-parent families -- and educate each child at least through the 12th grade... [Now add to this] what we've learned about the school's external problems -- poverty, broken families, teenage pregnancies, drugs, lack of health care, lack of child care..."

In 1990, Bruce Alberts, now the head of the National Academy, wrote poignantly about high school science teachers in California: Such a teacher might typically teach five classes a day, with three different preparations with a total of more than 160 students. A dedicated teacher, with labs, setup, preparation, grading, student conferences, and all the paperwork schools require, will work something like 70 hours a week, and have an average starting salary of $22,500 per year. Who would want this job? Or who, once having this job, would not be tempted to cut corners, give lots of rote assignments, skimp on hands-on lab experience, and just try to survive? ["Agenda for Excellence" in the Journal of NIH Research, Apr. 1990, p. 19.]

During the school year 1993-94, (at the same time that the starting salary for teachers was $22,500 on average) the average overall teachers' salary in the U.S. was $35,958 [NEA: Estimates of School Statistics (1994).] If we really felt that education is important in the U.S., would we pay teachers so much less compared to lawyers, accountants, business leaders? Why, in a culture that glorifies money, are we surprised when students (especially students from low-income families) get the message early on -- teaching and learning must not be so important to adults, or film stars and basketball players would not earn outrageously more than a mentor teacher.

And, despite our expectations of them, schools in our country cannot by themselves solve all the problems that threaten the education of young people. If we really want to make changes in the ways our children are educated, we must be prepared to examine the other influences on their lives as well. For some children, these include poverty, violence, drugs, neglect, ill health, and lack of proper housing. But even for children growing up in economically and emotionally stable environments, there is a pernicious influence that was much discussed as a problem when I was growing up, but today seems to be treated mainly with resignation television .

A typical student in the US spends about 900 hours a year in school and between 1200 and 1800 hours in front of a television set. In 1993, the average US household had a television set on for about 8 hours per day. And what does a youngster learn from commercial television? More often than not, they gather the exact opposite of what we try to teach them in school:

Think of how teachers are shown on most television programs on the commercial services: mostly as objects of derision. And how are scientists usually portrayed (when they are shown at all)? Mostly as evil villains, or naive agents of serious catastrophe that result from their experiments getting out of control. These "lessons" of television viewing are rarely lost on our students!

Before leaving the disquieting arena of K-12 education, let me turn just briefly to the places where so many of our teachers are trained - our schools of education. In the 20th century, the US has evolved a whole slew of specialized schools and departments for preparing our teachers. In many of these programs, you do not need to take any science (and certainly any physical science) to become an elementary level teacher. It is one of the few majors that do not have such a requirement, which means it actually selects out those people who are afraid of science. This is one reason why so many elementary teachers transmit a fear, a hostility, a shudder at the very mention of science to their young students, at just the time when kids' minds are seeking not just information but values.

Estimates are that more than 2/3 of math and science teachers in the US today do not meet the recommended proficiency standards of their own professional associations (Beardsley, T. "Teaching Real Science" in Scientific American, Oct. 1992, p. 98.) But, especially in the higher grades, the problem is not that teachers do not know enough science. The problem is more often that the schools of education, despite their many courses on teaching technique, rarely prepare teachers to present science the way it should be taught -- in ways the students, at their own stages of reasoning, are ready to understand. So science teachers often model their teaching of science on how they learned science, in big college lecture courses, from textbooks full of facts to be memorized. No wonder 11-year olds get turned off when science is presented to them in this way!

Now some schools of education in this country do make a valuable effort to train teachers in the value of science and its most effective presentation. But as long as schools of education remain separate "fiefdoms" from the departments of science at our universities, and as long as these programs continue to allow teachers to graduate without proper grounding in the method and teaching of science, our children will continue to have role models whose own attitudes toward science would be charitably described as luke-warm.

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, a report that decried state of education in the U.S. It called the "rising tide of mediocrity" a "peril to our very future as a nation and a people." It compared what was happening in our schools to an act of war, except it was an act we had declared on ourselves. The report (and others like it) made many recommendations, but so far there have been few effective follow-ups and few additional resources for waging this hidden war.

No amount of teacher training in science will address the fundamental problems of low pay, low morale, and student overwhelmed by life that confronts teachers in so many schools. We as a country must confront those issues, and yet I am very pessimistic about the will or the ability of our elected leaders to do so. This is why many leaders in both science and education are now saying that the hope of the future is for scientists (and other educated citizens) to get personally involved in local and national efforts to reform science education.

In astronomy, such efforts include the A.S.P.'s Project ASTRO, and its "Universe in the Classroom" program with workshops and materials for teachers in grades 3-12; the A.A.S.' A-ASTRA project training mentor teachers in astronomy around the country; several innovative programs in the Education Division at the Center for Astrophysics, led by Phil Sadler; and others listed in my Catalog of National Education Projects. But far more remains to be done and there are not enough astronomers in the country to have much of an effect on their own. Only by joining with other scientific disciplines, and encouraging some meaningful changes in the cultures of our universities, colleges, and research institutions, could we even hope to make any headway in this area.

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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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7. Amateur Astronomers

The U.S. has a large population of amateur astronomers, people whose hobby is astronomical observing or following astronomical developments in a serious sort of way. I like to divide the amateur community into three categories: Research-level amateurs are those who have sophisticated telescopes and detectors, or who carry out serious observing programs. These amateurs are usually members of such specialized organizations as the American Association of Variable Star Observers, Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, or the International Amateur-Professional Photoelectric Photometry Group, or they are working in conjunction with a professional astronomer in their community. There are probably not more than a few hundred of this group in our country.

Observing amateurs are those who have a telescope and regularly take it out for observing the sky, either for their own amusement or with a community or school group. These amateurs are frequently members of some of the more than 200 amateur clubs in the U.S., many of which are, in turn, members of the umbrella organization called the Astronomical League. The League currently has a combined membership of almost 13,000 people. Armchair amateurs, on the other hand, are those who mainly prefer to read about astronomy and may or may not do some casual observing from time to time. Some of these amateurs are members of local clubs, but many are not, and pursue their interest in astronomy through magazines or books they read, programs they watch on television, and lecture series they may attend. Some are members of such national organizations as the Astronomical Society of the Pacific or the Planetary Society. New converts to this group these days can come from those browsing the many interesting astronomy rest-stops on the information superhighway.

Many members of the three groups are tied together by the two main magazines for amateurs, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. Astronomy had a circulation in 1996 of 170,000, while S&T was at 110,000. Estimates of the total number of amateurs in the U.S. range from 200,000 to 500,000, often depending on how exactly you define the term. In any case, this figure, 40 to 100 times the number of professional astronomers, represents a tremendous population with potential in astronomy education.

Many amateurs are already involved in education, by going for occasional visits to local schools or putting on neighborhood star parties, where youngsters get their first look through a telescope. The amateur community organizes a National Astronomy Day each spring, where they make a special effort to bring telescopes to where people are and show them the night sky. The Astronomical League has a number of educational programs and publications, although they are limited by being purely volunteer efforts with no budget to support them.

But much more could be done. Many amateurs have time, knowledge, energy, and enthusiasm, which could much more actively be harnessed in the service of education. Some professional astronomers and educators worry that amateurs will tell students erroneous things; but at the level of a 5th grade class, the physics of quasar energy mechanisms isn't really a relevant topic. The phases of the Moon, why telescopes are needed to observe celestial objects, or the joys of hunting comets are much more appropriate to the reasoning level of the youngsters.

This was the thought behind Project ASTRO, a pilot program in the early 1990's at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA): to set up ongoing partnerships between amateur (and professional) astronomers and 4th to 9th grade teachers in sites around California. After a training workshop for the partners, astronomers visited "their" classroom not once, but at least four times (some went as many as 10 times), and worked with the teacher to present age-appropriate hands-on classroom and after-school activities.

We found that, with proper training, and when they are provided with a suite of good activities and teaching resources, amateurs (and professionals) can do an excellent job in helping students get excited about astronomy and science in general. Project ASTRO has produced The Universe at Your Fingertips, an 815-page loose-leaf notebook of exemplary activities, resource lists, and teaching suggestions that incorporate the best ideas from our project and many others around the country, which is now in its second printing and is being used by thousands of scientists and educators around the world. A How-to Manual for Astronomer-Educator Partnerships and a short video are also available through the project.

The pilot program was so successful that NSF has funded the expansion of the program to nine sites around the country, from Boston to Seattle. The Clark Foundation is supporting a tenth site in Salt Lake City. The program also offers training workshops for interested partners at meetings attended by either professional or amateur astronomers. Given the limited number of professional astronomers in the country, however, any expansion of the program will clearly depend on the active involvement of the amateur community.

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8. Astronomy Interpretation Community

In some ways, the interpreters to the public are the most far-reaching part of the astronomy education community, because they include the media. It is sobering to remember that one episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" on television is seen by far more people than all the students any of us will ever teach during our entire careers.

The astronomy interpretation community includes editors and reporters at daily newspapers and magazines, producers and writers on radio & television, the authors of introductory books on astronomical topics, the writers of children's books, and the authors of astronomy software and Web-sites. Let's look at this world briefly:

A. Magazines

If you examine a list of the top 100 magazines by circulation, you do find some rays of hope amidst the gathering darkness of gossip and entertainment magazines. In 1994, there was one in the top 5 U.S. magazines that regularly features very high quality astronomy articles: can you guess which magazine that is? It's National Geographic (with a circulation of about 9.5 million).

In the top 20, we have Time and Newsweek, both of which have had excellent physical science reporting, although both are now tending toward shorter and more superficial articles. The top 30 includes Smithsonian and the top 40, Popular Science. And one of the largest circulation periodicals in the country, the Sunday newspaper supplement called Parade (which is mostly pap), regularly featured wonderful essays by the late Carl Sagan which extolled the scientific perspective and debunk popular pseudo-sciences. David Levy (the comet hunter) has now been hired to continue this series.

In the category of smaller circulation special interest magazines, we have a number that do an excellent job of reporting astronomy to their readers: In addition to Sky & Telescope and Astronomy (which we have already mentioned), there are Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist, and Air and Space. Excellent and regular coverage also appears in the news pages of such magazines as Science, Nature, or Science News. Plus many of the astronomical and space interest societies issue their own magazines, such as The Planetary Report from the Planetary Society, Mercury from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, or Ad Astra from the National Space Society. Here, although specialist occasionally complain about a subtle point being missed, the reporting is very, very good indeed, and astronomy stands out among sciences as receiving and offering the best coverage for readers with a serious interest in the field. Of course such readers are relatively small in number compared to the population of the country.

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B. Daily Newspapers (Radio/TV News)

If you follow astronomy reporting in U.S. newspapers, you are probably used to reading the syndicated copy of some of the very best science reporters (from such newspapers as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, or The Los Angeles Times.) But these reporters, many of whom have some training in science, and who generally belong to a trade organization called the National Association of Science Writers, are really the cream of the profession. Under that cream comes a much larger group of reporters, editors, and radio and TV people whose training and judgment have become a cause for national concern.

In the old days, many journalists were trained in some academic subject (or self-trained) and went out to report the news. Today, there are over 400 schools or departments of journalism in the US (although many are slowly changing their names to include words like communication and media in part because many of their graduates hope to earn large salaries reading the news from cue cards on television.) These graduates, armed with courses as unspecific and muddled as anything our schools of education can come up with, are beginning to fill the ranks of the radio, television, and print media in the country. Many have minimal or no training in science and a good fraction share the larger public's distrust of and sense of intimidation by scientists.

Even many of the elite journalists in the first group don't do as much digging and reporting these days as you might imagine. They have a kind of symbiotic relationship with the public information officers at universities, research labs, and scientific societies, whose job it is to get out the news from their institution and have it be as widely disseminated as possible. (The two groups are actually so interwoven that journalists frequently move from one to the other and back again with ease.) Because no reporter can keep up with all that is happening in every science, many have come to rely on public information officers to identify noteworthy stories for them. And those are usually the stories that are then developed. There are exceptions — often stories with a local angle or a whiff of scandal — but many journalists are happy to pluck the fruit from the low hanging branches of the information tree; it is rare to see them do much climbing on their own.

In San Francisco, for example, the majority of non-local astronomy stories the public has gotten to read or hear about in the past two years have been determined by only two processes: 1. what stories Steve Maran, the Public Information Officer of the American Astronomical Society, decides to feature at the society meeting press conferences (which are attended by many top science reporters whose stories are frequently syndicated around the country); and 2. what stories NASA and Space Telescope Science Institute public information officers decide to hold news conferences or issue illustrated news releases about.

When the non-elite group of journalists cover some science story (especially on radio and TV), they often do so reluctantly and frequently make a muddle of it. Or they wind up simply rewriting a press release or wire service copy, or focusing on a local scientist who can comment in 20 seconds on the story. Furthermore, it often turns out that most of what these journalists call science news is actually news about medicine or applied technology.

It is these second-tier journalists who often get confused (to make the most charitable interpretation) between science and pseudoscience. They were the ones who reacted to the Nancy Reagan astrology revelations by interviewing local astrologers (who made it all sound like the most natural thing in the world that the president's schedule should be determined by astrological forecasting) and by doing puff pieces on all the movie stars that also guided their lives by astrology.

But there is another part of modern journalism, which more rarely gets discussed: the gatekeepers of the media. Decisions about what gets on the evening news are usually not made by the people you watch on your screen. Decisions about what gets significant coverage in the newspapers are not made by the people whose bylines you know. Decisions about what topics are discussed on the radio are often not made by the people whose voices you hear.

Making these decision is the role of the gate-keepers, editors and producers who filter the news, select the stories to be covered, and direct the tone of the material that will be read on the air. These gate-keepers are often young, superficially educated, and lack any serious knowledge of science. Yet they are the ones who assign the stories to reporters, determine the length of articles or broadcast pieces, and decide where these pieces will appear. They have been, many of them, raised on a steady diet of the kind of journalism we now have, and so accept the current system without question.

Furthermore, it is this group, more than the reporters, that is actually charged with minding the corporate bottom line at their institutions, and is thus most likely to pander to the worst instincts of the public instead of educating them. (Just count the number of news stories about ghosts around Halloween or the predictions of psychics around the new year.) Their sense of the public trust of journalism is founded much more on an entertainment than an educational model, and the trends in what gets reported and how it gets reported clearly bear out their influence. Small wonder that serious science and skeptical inquiry, which is the best thing the scientific method has to teach us, get such short shrift.

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C. Radio and Television Programming

Now we get further into the media wasteland, where oases are harder to find. Scientists tend to focus on and hear about these oases, such as the Stardate and Earth & Sky radio programs, the NOVA television series on PBS, the new telecourse on astronomy from Coast Community College, an occasional special somewhere on a cable channel, etc. The most successful astronomy TV program was Cosmos, estimated to have been seen by 500 million people in more than 60 countries since 1980. But all these are merely exceptions to the general rule of what is seen on television on an average night.

Overall, the television picture is very dim indeed, with vast quantities of pseudo-science being served up by most of the commercial networks. (This is being exacerbated by the tremendous growth of what is called "tabloid tv" — shows that generally imitate the contents and approach of the tabloid newspapers.) Science on many stations is often limited to ten-second newsbites on the evening news that make little sense to the uninitiated (and are often "Guinness Book of World Records" stories — the farthest galaxy, or the most massive black hole.)

As a country, we need to recognize the enormous power that the media have, and pay more attention to how decisions are made in the media. By this I don't mean censorship, but rather undertaking a long-term educational program to make sure that those who have the responsibility for deciding what goes on the air (or what is printed) have the education and the informed background to make sensible judgments. One step would be to introduce and require excellent science overview courses developed specifically for students going into journalism. Another would be for everyone who is dissatisfied with science coverage on the media to make his or her voice heard locally or nationally. (In San Francisco, the work we have done at the ASP has increased the amount of astronomy on local radio and television significantly and, although it took a while, it was not a very painful exercise.)

The argument the media always make in response to such concerns is that they are merely giving the public what it wants. But this argument is specious. Someone like me, who began life in Communist Eastern Europe, never got to taste a mango or an avocado as a child. Thus I would never have known to ask for a mango or an avocado, or have realized that I might want one. But after we came to America, I was introduced to a much wider range of foods: my palate was educated...and now I ask for mango and avocado regularly. Similarly, I would suggest that when the media tell us that people are much more interested in the Bermuda triangle that the Great Attractor, they are merely confessing our joint failure at educating both the gatekeepers of the media and the public about the tasty treats real science has to offer.

In focusing so strongly on the entertainment aspect of their mission over the educational aspect, the media lose sight of the fact that there is an alternative to pandering to the lowest taste. It is the far more difficult and long term job (and the almost forgotten pleasure) of elevating the tastes and desires of their audience to new levels of perception and understanding.

I should mention that there is a national organization which is making a creditable effort to help the media sort out science from fiction science. The group is called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a mouthful of a name, but a group with their hearts in the right place. It consists of scientists, educators, magicians, philosophers, lawyers, and other skeptics whose interest is to get the rational, skeptical perspective about fiction science out to the media and the public.

Through their superb magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, their meetings and workshops, and their information releases to the media, CSICOP has managed to alert and educate a significant number of reporters to stop and consider what they are doing when they file a story involving pseudoscience. They also work to bring together such reporters with skeptical spokespeople before a story is written. (They can be contacted at: P.O. Box 703, Amherst, NY 14226; I urge everyone in astronomy education to get to know their work and support what they are doing.)

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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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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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