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Stargazing

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The consequences of this neglect can be found in almost any newspaper article bemoaning America's scientific illiteracy. Fewer than half of American adults know that the Earth goes around the sun once a year. Very few people can explain the phases of the moon or the reasons for eclipses. Most people go about their lives paying little attention to the dazzling spectacle that appears after the sun sets in a cloudless sky.

Is that such a disaster? No matter what scientists might say, scientific literacy remains a luxury for most people. They can get by without knowing much about the nuclear reactions that occur in the sun, the Earth's carbon cycle, or the biochemical mechanisms responsible for life.

But people who aren't familiar with astronomy might be missing more than they think. The Earth's journeys around the sun are the measure of our mortality. The hormonal cycles of half the human race march in time to the phases of the moon. And the stories that echo in the stars are a highlight of our species' cultural heritage. As the essayist Thomas Carlyle once lamented, "Why did not somebody teach me the constellations and make me at home in the starry heavens?"

Astronomy also offers an excellent way of attracting kids to science. Learning about the solar system and stars can show even young children how much fun it is to discover new things about the world. Maybe their interest does reside partly in their fascination with flying saucers and spacemen. But many prominent scientists say that they got interested in science exactly the same way.

My own children are lucky. Though astronomy is not a formal part of the curriculum in the Montgomery County school district, the 2nd grade teachers at Burning Tree, our neighborhood elementary school, have put together an astronomy module that is the highlight of their students' year. For four weeks, all the 2nd graders undergo astronaut training in preparation for a promised trip to the moon. "What we try to do is capture their spirit of discovery," says Helene Granof, a medical technician turned elementary school teacher who developed the module for Burning Tree. "If we can introduce these concepts in a way that's fun, they'll get a lot out of it—even if they don't understand everything."

Over the course of their training, the 2nd graders do dances to learn about the difference between the Earth's spin and its orbit around the sun. They draw pictures of the moon each day for a month. They read folk tales about the moon, study its geography, and plan their trip. Then, on launch day, they go to a darkened stage, watch a movie about Apollo 11, and emerge to find six stations in the auditorium where they do everything from sample astronaut ice cream to calculate their moon weights. Says Granof: "When they leave this school at the end of the 5th grade, many of them say that what they remember best is their trip to the moon."

Opinions differ on how much astronomy elementary school children are able to learn. Many younger students do not have the spatial sense needed to picture the detailed workings of the solar system. Attempts to teach even 4th and 5th graders ideas like why the moon has phases often end in failure.

Yet educators and scientists also trace many future problems with astronomical concepts directly to the elementary years. "You have to get them interested as children," says Lucy McFadden, an astronomer at the University of Maryland who has most recently been involved in an effort to establish a new science and technology center in the state. "If you don't start them when they're young—at piano or mathematics or school or whatever—they probably won't get interested later on."

The misconceptions that develop among elementary school children can be remarkably resilient. In making the videotape A Private Universe, producer Matthew Schneps and Phil Sadler, head of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, asked 23 Harvard University seniors, faculty, and alumni on graduation day to explain the seasons and phases of the moon. With the supreme self-confidence borne of a Harvard education, 21 got it wrong.

The videotape also spends a fair amount of time with a high school student named Heather. Described as an exceptionally bright young woman by her teacher, Heather nevertheless makes a hash of her explanations of basic astronomical concepts. She draws the orbit of the Earth around the sun as a curlicue. She says that the seasons are caused by the sun's rays bouncing off other objects before they hit the Earth. It's "mind-boggling," says her teacher, watching Heather perform. "You assume that they know certain things."

Actually, even the youngest students do know a lot about astronomy. But what they know is often wrong.

Actually, even the youngest students do know a lot about astronomy. But what they know is often wrong. Over the past two decades, researchers have shown that preschoolers and elementary school children develop very definite ideas about the universe based on their everyday observations of the world. But the theories are not correct because children have not been "Copernicanized," as University of Illinois psychologist William Brewer puts it. "Adults might think that these ideas are dumbheaded, but I don't think so," Brewer says. "Kids are good little scientists. They use the data they have and develop their own theories."

Brewer and other developmental psychologists have documented many of the ideas about the cosmos that children construct as they grow. Most children begin thinking that the Earth is flat because that is what they see around them. Then, beginning in elementary school, they undergo what Brewer calls "a slow, difficult, agonizing battle to try to make sense of what adults are telling them."

For example, told that the Earth is round, many children picture it as a disk. In sailing around the world, Columbus sailed around the edge of the disk. Later, some children think that if the Earth is a sphere, we live inside where the candle would go in a jack-o'-lantern.

Finally, most children begin to grasp that we live on the surface of a sphere. But in that case, many conclude, the sun must be going around the Earth because that's what their eyes tell them. "It's remarkable," says Brewer. "Here we have kids who don't know anything about the history of astronomy, and using their own observations they construct a Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology."

The best way to dispel these preconceptions, according to astronomy educators, is to concentrate intensively on a limited number of fundamental astronomical concepts. At the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Bruce Ward and his colleagues have developed a curriculum for elementary school children that focuses on "a few big ideas as deeply as possible"—subjects like the connections between the Earth's motions and our measures of time. By exploring the central concepts thoroughly, Ward says, kids recognize the fallacies of their ideas and develop new, more accurate worldviews.

Ward's curriculum, called Astronomy Resources for Elementary Science, or ARIES, also emphasizes the building of simple, inexpensive models. By working with their own models, students engage in the kind of "discovery-based learning," says Ward, that cannot be achieved through textbooks and chalk talk.




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