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Project ASTRO How-To Manual: Ten Steps to a Successful Partnership

1. Plan and make at least 4 classroom visits, plus an extra first visit for the astronomer to observe the class anonymously.

Make multiple visits to the school or classroom, and begin with an observation visit so that the astronomer can see what the school and classroom are like. We’ve found that four visits are the minimum number for the astronomer and students to have time to get to know each other. With at least four visits, the astronomer can do longer term projects with students, and can join the teacher at key points in the curriculum. Also because each school visit may take some preparation, making more than four visits may not be possible for really busy astronomers. Of course, we encourage you to make more than four visits if possible – some Project ASTRO astronomers have enjoyed visiting as often as once a week for the entire school year.

2. Visit the same classroom over time.

When he or she works with the same students over time, the astronomer really gets to know the kids (and vice versa). We suggest that the astronomer work with one (or at the most two) self-contained elementary classrooms during a school visit, or in middle or high school, with no more than two science periods. Go for depth rather than exposure.

Start small.

We know that teachers who see more than one class each day ideally want to expose all of their students to the astronomer. Resist this kind impulse! This can place a great time demand on the astronomer (who is, after all, a volunteer) and make it more difficult for him or her to learn the children’s names, let alone form relationships with them. Although you will initially involve a smaller group of students, these kids will benefit much more from the astronomer’s multiple visits and personal contact. (In our pilot program, the visiting astronomers who faced many classes each time reported that they had a much less satisfying experience than those who “adopted” one class.)

Teachers can use the new skills they develop to enhance astronomy with other classes. If all partners agree, you can add additional students after you have been working together for a while. To reach more students, consider inviting them to special events (the entire sixth grade to a star party), have a one-time assembly for more kids, or have your students teach other classes.

3. The teacher should be responsible for student discipline and classroom management.

Visiting astronomers, as volunteers in the classroom, should not be expected to manage student behavior in the classroom. Rather, teachers should stay actively involved in the classroom, both to model learning and curiosity to students and to assist the astronomer with any discipline or logistics. At the same time, astronomers need to be aware of classroom rules and routines, and use them appropriately during their visits (such as having students raise their hands before speaking). It is a good idea to clarify what these rules are before the first visit.

“I thought I was going to have to teach astronomy and my teachers would go off for a bagel and coffee, but this was not the case. We worked together in partnership.” — Project ASTRO Astronomer

4. Commitment and communication are the keys to a successful partnership.

Strong partnerships develop when everyone has a high level of enthusiasm and commitment to the project. You will need to devote enough time to communicate and plan with your partner, to get ready for visits, and of course, to be in the classroom. Be careful not to overcommit at first. But, do follow through by keeping in touch with your partner teacher or astronomer. It’s also important to communicate clearly and openly about any concerns, needs, or suggestions you may have.

5. Teachers and astronomers should enter the partnership as equal, but differently skilled, partners.

Teachers are likely to be more knowledgeable about how students learn, what students need to know, and about how to structure and manage a classroom activity. Astronomers are likely to know more about astronomy and technology. Your partnership will be more successful if you enter it with respect and an expectation of equality. But don’t expect your partner to know everything or to do everything perfectly the first time. Let your partnership and your own skills develop as you get to know each others’ strengths.

6. Provide adequate time for planning and follow-up.

Focus on a few themes and goals and add more ambitious activities (field trips, star parties, site visits, simulated missions to Mars, etc.) after you have been working together for a while. An initial planning meeting or two will help you understand each others’ needs and interests. It is important for astronomers to listen and respond to teachers’ needs – you will be stronger allies this way. Build from your strengths. And, check in with each other about students’ reactions and how the activity went after each visit.

7. Children learn best when they are actively involved and engaged in learning, by observing, measuring, discussing, etc.

The philosophy and focus of Project ASTRO is to involve students in active, hands-on astronomy activities, as opposed to listening to lectures (although an occasional lecture may have a place in a well-thought-out program). Doing hands-on activities may require a more cooperative approach with both partners actively engaged.

“I learned that lecture style is not the way to go with kids. It has its place but Project ASTRO is more about hands-on activities and having fun.” — Rich Combs, Amateur Astronomer

8. Involve school administrators, other teachers, and families.

It’s always a good idea to keep the school principal and other administrators informed about Project ASTRO. Be sure the principal meets the visiting astronomer, and invite school administrators to special events and visits. If other teachers express interest in the program, invite them as well. In addition, you’ll find that astronomy offers great opportunities to involve families in their children’s science learning. “Star parties” for families and nighttime observing as homework activities are opportunities to get families out to look at the night sky, making science fun for all. Also, make use of other resources in your community. See Sections 7 and 9 for more ideas.

“It’s nice to meet students and parents on common ground outside of the school facility. At the middle school level, so often the only time we get to meet parents is when something is wrong. Project ASTRO was a great way to have a more positive experience with students and parents.” — Project ASTRO Teacher

9. Involve community resources when possible.

Don’t feel that the two of you need to do it all alone, especially if you are planning a special event. Seek out astronomy resources in your community, such as:

  • the local amateur astronomy club
  • public or private observatories
  • a planetarium or science museum
  • a NASA facility (including one of NASA’s Teacher Resource Centers or Space Grant College programs)
  • college or university astronomy departments
  • a community college with an astronomy program
  • parents with telescopes

See the sections on finding an astronomer and involving the community for specific ideas.

10. Create a plan that addresses both the teacher’s and the astronomer’s needs and interests, and don’t forget to keep the students in mind!

Sometimes, teachers and astronomers find that they want different things from the partnership. For example, the teacher may want students to learn about scale and distance, and the astronomer may want to share his or her knowledge and enthusiasm about telescopes and observing. It is important that both the teacher’s and the astronomer’s interests get met to some degree. You may need to clarify what the underlying issue is and make a few compromises so that the teacher’s classroom needs are met and the astronomer does what he or she is most enthusiastic about. The best solutions often involve working more closely together or sharing roles.