The Paradigm Shift in Astronomy Education
by Jay Ballauer with Scott Christensen
When people think of an observatory, they picture a huge telescope atop a mountain somewhere. But what we have seen is that observatories (and their telescopes) do not have to be as large as the Keck Observatories in Hawaii, nor do they have to be as well known as the Hubble Space Telescope. Instead, think smaller. Much smaller. Today, the astronomy “hobbyist,” equipped with off-the-shelf hardware and software, can now build an observatory (think “enclosure”) with a “hobbyist” budget.
Because of this fact, the vast majority of traditional astronomy is NOW accomplished not by professionals, but rather by amateurs.
Obviously, this is made possible because of the technology (chiefly in advances to camera technology) that is readily available today and the small amount of capital that can purchase this technology. In fact, with an Internet connection, a $500 telescope (or less) can actually be controlled from the opposite side of the world and most of these modest telescopes can be setup to run unattended. Astronomy observations can now be remotely controlled, even scripted to run via automation.
The result is an amateur astronomer, with strategically chosen tools, controlling astronomy equipment from inside the home, even watching television and helping their kids with homework, simultaneously doing astronomy. Today, when an amateur astronomer goes to bed, the astronomy gear is waking up, already programmed with the work to be accomplished that evening.
This capability did not exist 15 years ago. Today, it is fast becoming the rule, not the exception.
With this realization, how much more can a school district accomplish? An astronomy student, sitting in a classroom, can actually use an iPad to schedule a nighttime observation and come to school the next day to download the data. And it’s easy.
At least, it COULD happen.
The obvious question is, “Why haven’t other school systems done this?” Simply put, unless one of these astronomy “hobbyists” is ALSO an educator employed by the district, these capabilities just remain well-kept secrets. In fact, in dealing with some people connected in education at the University level, such capabilities remain a secret to most of them too. Unless you are a well-researched and capable amateur, you likely would be unaware of what today’s technology can do for the explorer/learner.
Amateurs astronomers know that High School Astronomy no longer has to be the only science class without a lab.
This shift in the direction of astronomy is important to science on the whole. Because the amateur is now capable of doing what the big observatories once did, the professionals can now focus on more lofty inquiries. While McDonald Observatory is bringing its astronomy power to bear on the difficult cosmological puzzles, amateurs with a little bit of time, ingenuity, and a some extra cash can do things like all-sky surveys to find comets, novae, and supernovae; or take spectra of previously unmeasured stars; or chart the cycles of variable stars. Even more mind-boggling is that amateur gear can even detect planets in orbit around OTHER stars.
And this is GREAT for the professional astronomer, who usually cannot find time on available instruments at the big observatories. So, a trending phenomenon is that professionals often enlist amateurs to provide data relevant to their research. The astronomer can wake up in the morning with a handful of emails with data provided to them by eager amateurs and complete their project(s) in short order!
Thus, for every professional astronomer in number, there will usually be several amateurs willing to support their research in a "PRO-AM" joint effort.
The sheer number of capable amateurs willing to help their professional brethren is vast indeed.
Can a K-12 school district make use of the same technologies? Of course they can.
Can a K-12 school student accomplish some of the same things that amateur astronomers are doing? Absolutely.
But as grandiose as such things are, in reality the power and amazement here is found in the simple things that are no possible, such as capturing pictures of the cosmos (remotely via Internet through automation); logging lunar, solar, and planetary data; using data of all types to supplement daily classroom activities; and providing participants with a sense of awe and an enjoyment of the learning process.
The foundation and technical “savvy” to transform Astronomy education currently resides within many of the amateur astronomers living in a district's own borders. And the costs, especially compared to the benefits, are insignificant to most large school districts. Thus, the question is not, “Does your school have the resources to best utilize this project?” but rather, “Why aren’t schools pushing forward to reap the benefits of it?”
What follows is a comprehensive list of what astronomy teachers might be missing...
- Taking Hubble-Like Images of the Cosmos - Using proper gear, amazing images both inspire and provide activities centered on the digital data collected. Amateurs with modest telescope gear have been doing this for decade now, producing images that amaze and astonish. For the teacher, even an iPhone image captured though the eyepiece of a telescope yields dozens of learning opportunities for students. Those lucky astronomy students would have access to use their own images within their own projects, and the bragging rights (not to mention the educational value) when they create them.
- Maximizing Telescope Time at Night – There is nothing more frustrating for an Astronomy teacher to not be able to practice Astronomy, especially when they KNOW it can impact their class. Short of holding class at midnight, there is very little that can be done about that. But if you put that gear in an observatory? Current gear usage will be maximized with an observatory, especially one that can be operated remotely. And although weather can be a hindrance to astronomy access, an observatory solves the issue because entire observing nights no longer depend on the weather. Instead of hoping the skies are clear and then having to reschedule an observing event when they are not, every night is potentially “observing night.”
- Observing During the Day – Most people do not realize that our Sun can be safely viewed with amateur gear, and some well-equipped teachers will often bring personal gear to the schools to demonstrate this. Not just white-light views either, but rather hydrogen-alpha views of solar prominences, flares, filaments, and smaller surface features. The moon is often visible during the day as well, a fact known to too few people. Even better, a permanently mounted telescope (in an observatory enclosure) can lock onto planets like Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars during the day. They are visible if you can find them, and our telescopes can do that for us if properly, and permanently aligned.
- Real-time Views and Accessibility – Cameras have the ability to stream real-time data via the Internet to anywhere in the world. With an observatory, this can be true of both astronomy targets as well as the entire sky. At any given time we have the ability to look at the current condition of the sky, not to mention checking in on what the Sun looks like. And this isn’t one person at a time, or one classroom at a time; this is any classroom and every classroom, simultaneously. For night time observing, students could visit a webpage to see live-views of what telescopes are currently showing, all without needing to be there personally.
- Creating a Data Repository – Once Astronomy students collect digital observation data, this data can the cataloged and stored for future use. A daily Solar or Planet Log comes immediately to mind. Lunar Journals and Observing Logs could be supplemented each day. International Space Station passes, Iridium flares and satellites, and meteor shower data can each be logged. Data may also be collected and stored automatically, through scripted automation.
- Provides Visibility Beyond Visual Astronomy – No matter how dark the skies are, imagination is required when looking through the eyepiece. Because astronomers often adorn their telescopes with powerful cameras, nothing is left to the imagination, turning “faint fuzzies” into galactic spirals; and smudges of brightness into globs of thousands of stars and wispy nebulae. Thus, the number of opportunities for doing astronomy increases exponentially as compared to traditional, visual astronomy. This means more “contact” time with students.
- Contributing to Science – It is one thing to do science. It is quite another to contribute to science. Amateur astronomers often contribute data to scientific communities. This is a typical goal for many amateur astronomers who pattern their observations around specific objects and types of data collection. For an high school student, it would not necessarily be a goal in itself (at least not in the lower programs), but contributory science often happens as a result of the inquiry. Many comets and nebulae were discovered this way.
- Sharing of Astronomy Assets – A unique aspect of Astronomy is that much of what scientists do is collaborative. Even among amateur astronomers, many team up from across the globe to share data sets and work jointly on projects. The authors of this paper have long-standing associations with other private observatory owners all over the globe. With our own observatory to “share,” joint programs and sharing can be done with anybody around the world. How about Astronomy students having access to the same technology (which is very standardized) to do real-time, night sky observations in Australia? Cloudy tonight? How about seeing if we can trade some time with a similar observatory in Wyoming?
For a single teacher devoting time (while becoming an experienced amateur astronomy themselves), having a ready-connection to an Internet-accessible observatory is a powerful way to impact classroom instruction. The possibilities for student involvement and interest are mind-blowing.
But for a more equitable, district-wide solution, the problem is obvious...it usually takes experts to get the most out of advanced technologies. For educators, who largely lack industry experience in MOST of the fields they teach, it's no wonder why treatments of such topics are typically textbook-based, surveys of a given subject. In the arena of STEM fields, this has almost tragic consequences since exposure to such exciting career areas is always lacking in K-12 education. If more students has expert teachers in their STEM-related fields to teach them, then certainly education can be transformed.
Of course, it's a classic catch-22 situation...teachers need industry experience to become experts, but as teachers, they don't find themselves able to build industry experience.
Consequently, it would take comprehensive training and technology development on a wide-scale to make teachers capable of taking full advantage of the power these tools yield. This is an obstacle not easily ignored, and it is the reason why education suffers as it does. And, not to demonize teachers, but how can a full-time teacher - who has to focus much in the way of lesson-planning, classroom management, pedagogy, and parent communications - ever HOPE to be able to become an expert in ANYTHING? Truly, teachers are amazing just as they are!
The ideal scenario, and the hope of this writing, would be to discover a way to make it happen. How might we figure out a way bridge the gap between and expert in pedagogy (a teacher) and an subject-matter expert (a professional or advanced amateur)?
In Astronomy, can we possibly change the WAY schools do Astronomy education? What would such an Initiative look like?
With a solid plan, and with two or three new dedicated positions created specifically toward developing and implementing such an initiative, we believe that ANY district can accomplish truly amazing things in the arena of science education. But such an initiative must include four things...
- Expert knowledge of the possibilities, either through consultation or direct industry experience using industry standard tools.
- An acceptance of the fact that teacher's are not experts, but rather good resources and facilitators to learning.
- Use of technologies that serve as an interface between the learner (both student and teacher) and the tools they need to use, reducing teacher training requirements that would be otherwise impossible to overcome.
- A curriculum and activities that will "embed" the technology in a way that is seamless. requiring little to no training in their use.
Notice that these items are not astronomy-specific. They are true of any of the STEM-based subjects that K-12 education teaches.
What follows is a comprehensive list of how education can be impacted by the successful employment of such an Initiative...
- District-Wide Data Collecting - With training by district personnel, teachers and students can make contributions to district webpages with regard to astronomy, weather, or space weather. In other words, data has secondary use beyond their intended uses in the classroom. Similarly, students can be their own promoters. Imagine a student-led mentor program whereby advanced astronomy students notify mentees and/or district teachers of new observations relevant to their curricula by sending out a web link?
- A Mobile, District-Wide Astronomy Lab – One of the key experiences that can enhance astronomy education is to provide an “a la carte” experience for district teachers. In the same way that a teacher can sign-up to use a computer lab, a teacher could also sign-up to have a district personnel bring astronomy gear and activities to them. We already have experience in this area, from leading young students in hand-on activities to showing students views of solar system objects (like sun, moon and planets) or even hosting “star-parties” at night.
- Creates an Atmosphere for Dialogue – Ownership of the learning process not only promotes engagement but also dialogue. In our experience, applied astronomy promotes conversation, and this is very true when those applications are experienced first hand. And it is not just a dialogue about the view, but also about the learning process. When a student looks through an eyepiece or takes an image, the follow up questions from students are inevitably, “What can I do to do this better?” or “How does all this work?”
- Content and Promotion – Aside from contributions to curriculum, images of the night sky make for good content in various PR materials. And if our students take these images, it would be groundbreaking in education circles. The images we have taken to this point trigger a sense of awe and they make people want to find out more about us.
- An Innovative, Powerful, Vertically-Aligned Astronomy Curriculum – The thing that holds back curriculum design and development in technology classes (be it industrial or career-tech), is the lack of experience on the side of key district personnel. Without knowing what’s possible, it becomes impossible to stay on the cutting-edge of curriculum design. Staying true to the TEKS objectives at each level, we can foresee an opportunity to rework our current astronomy education model to provide a cohesive astronomy program throughout Mansfield ISD. Not only does this increase the impact our tools can have on education directly, but it builds teacher confidence in our science programs and provides incentive and excitement for kids of all levels.
- Cross-curriculum Involvement – A set of astronomical data has to be processed. This data can take the form of an image, which relates to Photography. Remote control of telescopes and facilities falls solidly in the field of Robotics. A small observatory (and related facilities) is a perfect joint-project for Construction (wood-framing and metal fabrication) classes. The weather-sensors and logging software necessary for an observatory leads to perfect data within a Meteorology class. Observatories are about much more than just astronomy.
- Educating the Public – The message of education should be that we are all learners; and learning is a lifetime pursuit. As kids watch the world revolve around them, we can teach them that they are merely part of a much larger universe. Nothing is better than Astronomy in this regard. This same message can be conveyed to the public in general, since there is no reason why anybody within the district borders cannot reap the benefits of such a program. Whether our goal is to teach our community how to learn or to preach the advantages of light-pollution/energy preservation, an entire community benefits.
- Shows off Mansfield ISD as “Forward-thinkers” – While there is a certain “coolness factor” to what can be done here, the real message to be conveyed is that Mansfield ISD thinks outside of the box when it comes to educating our kids. It is one thing to purchase iPads for kids in a school district, but quite another to provide a universe to look at WITH those iPads. Our Astronomy program would perpetuate excellence that is rare in education below the University level, yielding a broader reach. We would be known as a group that doesn’t just talk science, but actually does it.
What is terrific about technology on the whole is that it opens up a vast potential of possibilities. In astronomy, it represents doing science more actively, efficiently, and powerfully, benefiting a larger number of people.
In summary, a full-scale buy-in to the concepts of this article is not required. Merely building a simple, inexpensive structure (observatory) to house current astronomy assets would make us truly innovative among other science programs.
However, the potential to truly transform education is only a few steps away if Mansfield ISD fully supports the initiative outlined here.