Once a core part of a classical education, astronomy is now an academic orphan. But making children at home in the starry heavens can turn them on to science.
By Steve Olson — February 01, 1998 13 min read

Throughout the classroom, 2nd graders are fluttering their hands and dancing in circles. Others are spinning to the point of dizziness. The room seems on the verge of chaos. But these 2nd graders at Burning Tree Elementary in Montgomery County, Maryland, are actually mimicking the most stately of motions: the daily spin of the Earth and its annual orbit around the sun.

You won’t see such a scene in most schools. Astronomy, a subject that was once emphasized in classical education, has become an academic orphan. Many elementary schools don’t teach astronomy in any formal way. In middle school, astronomy usually takes up a few weeks of an earth science class—and teachers trained in geology tend to hurry past the subject to return to more familiar material. Just 10 percent of American high schools offer an astronomy course, and those courses often exist only because the instructor is an amateur astronomer.

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.

Models also give students a sense of the size and scale of astronomical objects—topics that traditional astronomy classes often slight. For example, the sun, Earth, and moon that dangle from many classroom ceilings are often wildly out of proportion. The diameter of the moon is actually just a quarter that of the Earth, while the sun’s diameter is a hundred times the Earth’s. And classroom models often place the moon much too close to the Earth, which fosters the misconception that Earth’s shadow contributes to the moon’s phases. In fact, the moon and Earth are separated by a distance 30 times the Earth’s diameter.

Teaching these fundamental concepts is critical for lifelong understanding in astronomy, according to Ward’s colleague Sadler. “The understanding of day and night and the Earth’s yearly revolution around the sun appears to be the key to mastery of the sun’s motion in the sky, the seasons, and many other concepts,” he says. “Much of American science education has to do with teaching a smorgasbord of ideas. Teachers don’t worry about mastery of the fundamental ideas. But unless students master these concepts in astronomy, they can’t learn anything else.”

Curious about why my children’s school system does not have astronomy in the curriculum, I called William McDonald, elementary science coordinator for the county. He admitted that astronomy had been an obvious omission in the science modules developed by the county several years ago. But he explained that the school district has been adding these ideas by extending existing modules like meteorology and solar energy.

“We want our younger children to observe changes in the sky,” he says. “We want them to understand that the sun and moon have a repeating pattern. We want them to know that the moon is sometimes out during the day. We don’t teach them the phases of the moon, but we want them to know that the moon has phases.”

McDonald has obviously been reading his science standards. “The National Science Education Standards,” released in 1996 by the National Research Council, says that in kindergarten through 4th grade children should observe astronomical objects “to identify sequences of changes and to look for patterns in these changes.” “The Benchmarks for Science Literacy,” a set of learning objectives prepared by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, calls for children to be familiar with the stars and with the changing shape of the moon by the end of 2nd grade; 3rd through 5th graders, meanwhile, should know that star patterns stay the same and that the Earth is one of several planets in the solar system. In grades 5 through 8, according to the national science standards, students can build on earlier observations to gain “a clear notion about gravity, the shape of the Earth, and the relative positions of the Earth, moon, and sun.”

It sounds simple enough, but there’s a catch. Elementary school teachers are not necessarily more familiar with astronomical concepts than the average American, and the questions asked by students

can easily venture into the unknown. That’s one of the forces behind Project ASTRO, which the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, one of the nation’s largest and most active astronomical groups, has been conducting for the past several years. Project ASTRO brings professional and amateur astronomers into the classroom through partnerships with teachers and youth-group leaders in grades 4 through 9. Before their classroom sessions, teams of teachers and astronomers attend a two-day workshop to share ideas and plan activities. “We train them together so that the astronomers and teachers are partners,” says Andrew Fraknoi, a former executive director of the ASP and the founder of the project.

At its best, the interactions between teachers and astronomers benefit both partners, according to Fraknoi. Teachers learn the content of astronomy, and astronomers are exposed to current thinking about how to teach science. At the same time, both groups gain experience with inquiry-based methods of teaching astronomy. “You can’t just lecture at them,” says Fraknoi. “Students have to do what scientists do. They have to learn from their observations what the rules are.”

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific also has put together an extensive collection of readings, activities, and resource listings for K-12 astronomy education [see “Teaching Resources” on page 33]. “The Universe at Your Fingertips,” an 813-page, loose-leaf notebook, contains almost everything that a teacher would need to start teaching astronomy. “It brings 20 years of experience together in a single place,” says Fraknoi.

Many of the activities in “The Universe at Your Fingertips” originated in two other hotbeds of astronomy-curriculum development—the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, and the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Both groups have focused considerable attention on young children. “Especially if you just deal with the more observational parts of astronomy, I think it’s quite appropriate to teach it to younger children,” says Dennis Schatz, an author of “Astro Adventures,” a curriculum for grades 4 and up. “But teachers ought to try not to take the next step and explain many of these phenomena until the 4th grade, when students are better able to handle these topics.”

“You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to get to the stars. What’s important is to get kids out there and looking up.”

Lucy McFadden, astronomer, University of Maryland

At the Lawrence Hall of Science, Cary Sneider, who recently became vice president for programs at the Boston Museum of Science, and his colleagues also have developed a series of activities for students in grades 4 through 9. Titled “Earth, Moon, and Stars,” the exercises encourage students to discover for themselves the relations among celestial objects. In one, for example, students imagine that they live at a time when people believe the Earth is flat. They then invent flat-Earth models that explain how the sun gets from west to east during the night. Finally, they compare their models with the actual shape of the Earth and discuss such questions as: “What would happen to a rock dropped in a hole drilled between the north pole and south pole?”

Sneider has studied groups of children before and after they did the activities and has found marked decreases in student misconceptions. One surprise: The younger kids changed their minds more than the older kids, suggesting that older students might have more difficulty learning these concepts as their ideas about the world become more ingrained.

The 1,000-plus planetariums in the United States offer another invaluable resource for teachers. Many planetariums, especially the smaller and medium-sized ones, have been moving toward what are known as participatory shows. “Instead of having kids sit there passively, you have them do things and construct their own ideas,” says Harvard’s Sadler, who has been active in the development of small, moveable planetariums that can travel from school to school. “For example, you can have kids predict where the sun will set, and then the planetarium can test their theories. You can build up a substantial amount of understanding that way.”

Books, both old and new, also remain a superb way of learning about astronomy. H.A. Rey’s classic The Stars is a favorite in my house—partly because the pictures remind us of Rey’s other famous books, the Curious George stories. I’m also a fan of Chet Raymo’s 365 Starry Nights, with its suggestion of something new to learn every night of the year.

And then there are the stars themselves—available just outside on any clear evening. Most cities have clubs of amateur astronomers who designate nights when they set up their telescopes and invite everyone to come. Many cities also have nearby observatories, which often combine lectures with peeks through the big scopes.

But my kids, like many younger children, usually do just as well without telescopes or even binoculars. Stories, shapes, and star colors seem best at keeping their interest. Just being outside on a dark, starry night is a thrill for them.

“You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to get to the stars,” says the University of Maryland’s McFadden. “What’s important is to get kids out there and looking up.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Stargazing


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