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
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."