Of Rocks, Erosion, and Star Students
On an early December evening, 23 advanced fifth-grade GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) students from southern California gathered at the Desert Studies Center in the Mojave desert to view the Moon, planets, and stars. It was an overnight trip that had been planned for several months in advance, a Project ASTRO event that would also include a half-day study of the solar system and observations of the Sun.
While viewing the crescent Moon, the students began asking about the craters. A question arose regarding the apparent scarcity of craters on Earth. The students all had ideas as to the cause: "Earth's atmosphere burns up most of the meteorites," "The craters are so big we don't notice that we are in one," "Earth's strong gravity some how diverts the meteorites away from us, a sort of negative gravity." By far the most popular answer was the first, even when someone suggested that the atmosphere is too thin to block large meteroids. It was then suggested to the students that maybe they were considering the wrong question. What if we knew for certain that Earth had been heavily cratered in the past, just like the Moon? What happened to all those craters? Again, a lively discussion began. With some additional questions about the origin of the soil, gravel, and rock on which they were sitting, one student brought up erosion and the entire group got on a roll. With some additional information on mountain building and continental drift, the solutions were at hand.
During this entire discourse, the idea that Earth's atmosphere burns up meteoroids arose again and again. It was obviously a concept to which the students had been exposed. An incorrect concept in this case, but one they had learned well.
Cary Sneider of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, Calif., has argued that students often learn incorrect concepts and must un- learn them. This rang loud and clear during my discourse with the fifth-graders. Although they possessed a significant degree of knowledge about the solar system, they held to their misconceptions with tenacity. How does this happen?
Where do their ideas come from? Do we need to start astronomy education earlier than fifth-grade? Do our teachers have the materials and background needed to represent the findings of astronomy correctly?
Today, science standards are being debated, discussed, and revised by various states; California is yet again addressing this issue and with some controversy. Back-to-basics, integrated curriculums, hands-on and experiential approaches: All have their advocates and opponents. We all need to be involved with the discussion and the decisions. But this is not the be-all of education. A night out on a rock, looking at and talking about the Moon, planets, and stars, can help students to visualize the true environment of their universe better than any written curriculum and standards. Try it. Find the right rock and some clear skies, bring on the fifth-graders, and watch out!
Teachers faced with the special challenges of teaching science to disabled students may wish to attend a two-day workshop in Las Vegas, April 14-15, 1998, just prior to the National Science Teachers Association national convention. The workshop will discuss a variety of resources and strategies that can be useful in teaching disabled students. It provides an opportunity to share ideas, and each participant gets a kit of hands-on materials and resources. Space is limited. Contact Greg Stefanich at 319-273-2071 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Big Bang for Beginners
A new enrichment curriculum for primary school, "Our Origins in the Universe," has been developed by education consultant Gaye Gronlund and cosmologist Adrian Melott. It emphasizes the Big Bang, formation of planets, and evolution of life. The packet contains two picture books and classroom exercises and experiments appropriate for grades 1-3 and 4-5. Send email to email@example.com or call Adrian Melott at 785-749-0670 or Gaye Gronlund at 317-823-8860.
Nominations are now being accepted for the Maria Mitchell Women-in-Science Award. The $5,000 award is for an individual or organization that has encouraged girls or women to pursue studies and careers in science and technology. For a nomination application, visit http://www.mmo.org, call 508-228-9198, or write to the Maria Mitchell Association, 2 Vestal Street, Nantucket, Mass., 01554. The deadline is March 15, 1998.
Beginning this summer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., will offer a master's degree program for science teachers. The program will emphasize the process of doing science and math, inquiry-based teaching, and learning through doing. It covers three consecutive summers, and teachers accepted into the program will receive fellowships to cover part of the tuition. Contact Jennifer Kangas at 518-276-6906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Astro Ed on the Web
The ASP's Project ASTRO has prepared a catalog of projects in astronomy education to which anyone can apply or from which anyone can request materials. It lists workshops, curriculum, computer and audio-visual materials, newsletters, student programs, planetarium and amateur astronomy projects, and awards and grants. Visit Astronomy Education at the ASP.
Did Ya See Us?
Project ASTRO was the lead article in the NSF Newsletter Frontiers. The article, "A Bright Star in Science Education," featured a solar-system project in Oakland. Want to get involved? Try Project ASTRO or call 415- 337-1100 x4.
LEO P. CONNOLLY is a professor in the Department of Physics at California State University in San Bernardino. He attended the Project ASTRO workshop in June 1996 and started a partnership last September. His email address is email@example.com.