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Focus on Education: Reach for the Stars

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.
– H. G. Wells, 1920

I suppose that introductions are in order. For a long time, this space has been filled by the “Education Newswire” columns of Leo Connolly. Dr. Connolly’s column made us think about important education issues and at the same time pointed us to new developments in astronomy education. It was also one of the major factors in helping Mercury become THE journal for reports and articles about astronomy education. Unfortunately, after writing it for several years, Dr. Connolly has decided to retire his column.

Looking for a replacement, the editor of Mercury approached me. Those who know me know that I love nothing more than pontificating about education, so I could hardly turn his offer down.

Besides the change of authorship, you’ll notice a change in the nature of this column. For a couple of reasons, I will no longer put a lot of emphasis on news updates about astronomy education. One reason is that I’m not as on top of all this news as Dr. Connolly managed to be. Another reason is that the Web now offers many resources for astronomy education news. Four great resources are ASP’s education webpage, its quarterly teachers’ newsletter Universe in the Classroom, the page for astronomy teachers maintained by Andrew Fraknoi, and the education page at the American Astronomical Society.

In place of news, this column will become more of an op-ed piece on issues in astronomy education. While I don’t claim any special expertise in education, I do have a fair amount of experience to speak from. I spent several years as an elementary school teaching assistant and science specialist, and several summers running an astronomy program for elementary- and middle-school children. Later, I taught astronomy to high-school students in a summer program at the University of Colorado. I’ve taught college classes in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and education. I also spent a couple of years at NASA Headquarters developing education programs for the Office of Space Science. Thus, my perspective will be that of someone who has been very involved in teaching and curriculum development.

The more important question is why I’m involved in education, and why I think it is so important for all astronomy enthusiasts – whether amateur or professional – to get involved as well. There are, of course, the usual answers involving our obligation to give something back to society. For example, we all know that kids love astronomy, so it makes sense for us to do what we can to help motivate children to learn through astronomy. We also know that astronomy is largely a taxpayer-funded endeavor, and it is, therefore, our duty to make sure that the benefits of astronomical research go to everyone and not just to the professionals who receive the funding.

But I believe there are much deeper reasons why we must share our enthusiasm for astronomy with others. Take another look at the H.G. Wells quote at the beginning of this article. He wrote it more than two decades before the advent of the atomic bomb. Today, our technological prowess gives us the ability to destroy our society in many ways. The threat of nuclear war remains with us, even if it is far less likely now than it seemed before the end of the Cold War. Advances in medicine and public health have allowed our population to grow to the point where we are placing a huge burden on the natural environment upon which we depend. Rapid, global transportation allows us to spread deadly diseases around the world in a few days.

At the same time, our science and technology offer incredible promises for the future. We may soon be able to wipe out most debilitating diseases. New food and energy technologies may allow us to provide a high standard of living to all humans while also alleviating the pressure on the environment. We can easily imagine an astronomical observatory on the Moon (see “Astronomy from the Moon: A Second Look,” p. 31) or the arrival of the first human explorers on Mars. But these achievements may be only the beginning. If we can successfully navigate the minefield of potential catastrophes, we can foresee a day when our children or grandchildren will set sail for the stars. After all, unless our technological development is halted, it seems inevitable that we will someday build starships that can travel at speeds near the speed of light.

Take a long view, down the centuries and millennia from this moment. Imagine our descendants living among the stars. They will have the privilege of experiencing ideas, worlds, and discoveries beyond our imagination today. Perhaps, in their history lessons, they will learn of our generation – the generation that history placed at the fork between the pathways to catastrophe and the pathways to the stars. This history, if it is ever written, will surely say that we found the right path because of our emphasis on education.

Viewed in this light, astronomy education is more than just a civic concern. It is a survival skill. As Yogi Berra may have said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up some place else.” Given our choice of paths, it is our solemn obligation to help teach everyone on Earth to reach for the stars.

Jeff Bennett is currently a full-time writer in Boulder, Colorado. He is lead author of two textbooks for introductory astronomy: The Cosmic Perspective and The Cosmic Perspective Brief Edition, both published by Addison Wesley. He welcomes email correspondence about these columns and other issues at