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Black Holes to Blackboards: Science for the Masses

Jeffrey F. Lockwood
Sahuaro High School

A manifesto for astronomy education.

Parent of incoming ninth-grader: What’s with the new science requirements?

School counselor: Well, for starters, beginning with the class of 2032, all ninth-graders nationwide will take astronomy.

Parent: Why the change from the old ways?

Counselor: As you know, high school is now a five-year sequence of courses designed to parallel the new pentayear curriculum our colleges and universities have developed. We needed a science course that could be used to introduce all the others. Astronomy is perfect for the job.

Parent: What follows in 10th-grade?

Counselor: We’re trying to adjust to the new admissions requirements of our state universities: four units of lab science, five of math, plus competency in two foreign languages. So we track our kids into chemistry as sophomores, physics as juniors, biochemistry and human anatomy as pre-seniors, and astrophysics research to tie all four courses together when they’re seniors…

Excuse me. I was daydreaming. My many years of astronomy teaching, coupled with my completely biased view that astronomy is the most exciting of all the sciences to teach kids, constantly triggers dreams of such changes in our curriculum. Actually, the date could have been 1882 instead of 2032 and the fantasy would have been partly correct. Astronomy had a valued place in American secondary schools for most of the 19th century.

But in 1893, the National Education Association charged a group of educators — the “Committee of Ten” — to examine high-school curricula. One of their recommendations was to remove astronomy. This committee endorsed the biology, chemistry, and physics sequence most schools employ today. Given astronomy’s relegation, astronomy educators are now as scarce as adults who know what a quasar is.

Is it any wonder, then, that misconceptions and misunderstandings in astronomical matters are rife? Surveys consistently show that half of American adults think the Sun revolves around Earth. It’s one thing not to know, say, Lenz’s law of electric currents, but how can we go through life not knowing what a year is, or how the most prominent object in the sky behaves, or where we stand in the cosmic scheme of things?

By ignoring the heavens, schools are failing students — and not just because astronomy is important to know, but also because people want to know it. Astronomy is science for the masses. Newspapers and magazines can’t seem to get enough of it. Articles appear after every astronomical meeting, every Hubble Space Telescope discovery, every planetary mission. What other science, besides medicine, excites such a clamor?

One reason for this interest is surely that astronomy is a visual science. Laypeople can imagine planets, stars, and even galaxies hurtling through space. Molecular bonds, electron orbitals, and top quarks, on the other hand, confound even the experts. You can go outside and see a spectacle such as comet Hale-Bopp or an eclipse for yourself. For most other fields, you have to rely on second-hand reports.

Astronomy enlivens classrooms, too. The field has inspired an entire genre of fiction. UFOlogy and astrology, constantly in the newspapers, are entrenched in young people’s minds. Connections such as these, formed before kids step into an astronomy class, stir their imagination and provide fodder for questions and analyses.

Astronomy is loaded with activities, lab exercises, and high-tech learning aids that make the subject engaging for students and comfortable for teachers. There are more tapes, slides, CD-ROMS, software packages, laser discs, magazines, and books available for astronomy than for any other science. No burbling chemicals or easy-to-break, hard-to-replace equipment is necessary.

Lively in its own right, astronomy can also be used to teach principles of Earth science, chemistry, and physics. Optics, thermodynamics, and mechanics can be applied to astronomical objects — an effective way to make learning less painful and more dynamic.

But I think the primary reason for a more cosmic curriculum is: The study of astronomy is the only opportunity for our students to glimpse their place in the cosmos — the immensity, the scale, the shape of the universe that is our home.

So, what will it take to get astronomy back in the curriculum? Teacher-training programs will have to include astronomy. Colleges will need to offer an astrophysics-teaching major. Most of all, parents and educators will need to change their vision of what we are attempting to teach in our classrooms. We have to decide what we want members of our society to know in order to be scientifically and socially aware.

The impetus has to come from the grassroots. Our educational system has grown from the one-room schoolhouse to a thousand-tentacle bureaucratic octopus. Its decentralized nature may put national curriculum changes forever out of reach. Even at the state level, systemic reform is very difficult to effect. For astronomy to become a required course, individual teachers and parents will have to lobby their individual school districts. Perhaps every school-board member could be invited to a star party at a local dark site. Could any of them say no after witnessing the majesty and mystery of the night sky?

JEFFREY F. LOCKWOOD is a high-school and college astronomy and physics teacher at Sahuaro High School and Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz. Lockwood designed his school district’s first high-school astronomy course in 1979 and has taught it ever since. His email address is iplockwood@aol.com.