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September 2010




About Education and Public Outreach


John R. Percy
Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto
Toronto ON Canada M5S 3H8

Table of Contents:

Forms of Education and Outreach
The Canadian Astronomy E/PO Initiative
Needs Surveys
What People Know about Astronomy
Why Do People Acquire Misconceptions?
How People Learn
Astronomers in the Classroom
The School Curriculum
Youth Groups
Adult Learners
Giving a Good Presentation
Partnerships, Networks, and Nodes

Astronomers can learn and pursue their profession or hobby in isolation. They can also share it with others through education and outreach. The terms Education and Outreach are sometimes used interchangeably, or are used to refer to formal and informal education, or to school and public education, respectively. The two are related: science education in the schools is strongly affected by the many channels for public education - notably the mass media; public understanding and appreciation of science begins in school. Hereafter, I will use the term Education and Public Outreach (acronym E/PO) which is widely used in the US where there is lots of money from government and private sources to support it. E/PO is essential to attract and train the next generation of professional and amateur astronomers. We do not expect every student to become a professional astronomer, but we want to ensure that those who do are well prepared. Amateur astronomy also needs to attract young people, especially women, minorities, and other under-served groups. E/PO is also essential to promote public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of astronomy. Most Canadian astronomy is supported by taxpayers. Astronomy is also an excellent vehicle for increasing science literacy in general, and science literacy is increasingly important for the health of our economy, our environment, our bodies and minds, and even our culture. E/PO (if done effectively) can present a positive image of astronomy, astronomers, and their institutions. And astronomy is useful for many reasons, and should be an integral part of our education system, and our culture!

  • Astronomy is deeply-rooted in almost every culture, as a result of its practical applications, and its philosophical implications.
  • Among the scientific revolutions of history, astronomy stands out. In the recent lists of "the hundred most influential people of the millennium", a handful of astronomers were always included.
  • Astronomy has obvious practical applications to timekeeping; calendars; daily, seasonal, and long-term changes in weather; navigation; the effect of solar radiation, tides, and impacts of asteroids and comets with the earth.
  • Astronomy has advanced the physical sciences by providing the ultimate physical laboratory -- the universe -- in which scientists encounter environments far more extreme than anything on earth. It has advanced the geological sciences by providing examples of planets and moons in a variety of environments, with a variety of properties.
  • Astronomical calculations have spurred the development of branches of mathematics such as trigonometry, logarithms, and calculus; now they drive the development of computers: astronomers use a large fraction of all the supercomputer time in the world.
  • Astronomy has led to other technological advances, such as low-noise radio receivers, detectors ranging from photographic emulsions to electronic cameras, and image-processing techniques now used routinely in medicine, remote sensing etc. Its knowledge is essential as humankind enters the era of space exploration.
  • Astronomy, by its nature, requires observations from different latitudes and longitudes, and thus fosters international co-operation. It also requires observations over many years, decades, and centuries, thus linking generations and cultures of different times.
  • Astronomy reveals our cosmic roots, and our place in time and space. It deals with the origins of the universe, galaxies, stars, planets, and the atoms and molecules of life -- perhaps even life itself. It addresses one of the most fundamental questions of all -- are we alone in the universe?
  • Astronomy promotes environmental awareness, through images taken of our fragile planet from space, and through the realization that we may be alone in the universe.
  • Astronomy reveals a universe which is vast, varied, and beautiful -- the beauty of the night sky, the spectacle of an eclipse, the excitement of a black hole. Astronomy thus illustrates the fact that science has cultural as well as economic value. It has inspired artists and poets through the ages.
  • Astronomy harnesses curiosity, imagination, and a sense of shared exploration and discovery (I think Doug Cunningham was the first to put this so eloquently).
  • Astronomy provides an example of an alternative approach to ``the scientific method" -- observation, simulation, and theory, in contrast to the usual experiment and theory approach.
  • Astronomy, if properly taught, can promote rational thinking, and an understanding of the nature of science, through examples drawn from the history of science, and from present issues such as pseudo-science.
  • Astronomy, in the classroom, can be used to illustrate many concepts of physics, such as gravitation, light, and spectra.
  • Astronomy, by introducing students to the size and age of objects in the universe, gives them experience in thinking more abstractly about scales of time, distance, and size.
  • Astronomy is the ultimate interdisciplinary subject, and "integrative approach" and "cross-curricular connections" are increasingly important concepts in modern school curriculum development.
  • Astronomy attracts young people to science and technology, and hence to careers in these fields.
  • Astronomy can promote and increase public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of science and technology, among people of all ages.
  • Astronomy is an enjoyable, inexpensive hobby for millions of people.

Finally: you should consider doing education and outreach because it is deeply rewarding and satisfying. You are sharing your passion with people who, by and large, are thirsting for it, and appreciate it. Because astronomy has so many facets and dimensions, there are many different reasons why students and the public might want to learn about it. There are also many different venues, other than school and university classrooms: planetariums and science centres; astronomy clubs; newspapers, magazines, and books; TV and radio; the Internet; on hikes and at camps (Fraknoi 1996). All of these provide opportunities for astronomers to work with other educators and communicators in an enjoyable and effective way.

Forms of Education and Outreach

The many forms of E/PO can be illustrated by the remarkable work done by the RASC, its Centres and members, and by other astronomy clubs; they bring their knowledge, their enthusiasm, and their telescopes to Canadians, young and old, across the country. This includes hundreds of public lectures each year, with attendances of up to several hundred; over two hundred "star parties" given by the RASC alone, with attendances up to two thousand; network and cable TV and radio programs and interviews; newspaper and magazine articles and interviews; open house at observatories and planetariums; exhibits and displays; Astronomy Day and other special events; school visits and star parties; web sites; publications such as the Observer's Handbook and The Beginner's Observing Guide. Many RASC E/PO activities are done in partnership with other organizations - astronomical and otherwise. I estimate that the RASC reaches 400,000 Canadians each year! Professional astronomers, graduate and undergraduate students also engage in E/PO activities of many kinds. Most university astronomy departments have public lectures and open houses (especially on Astronomy Day), and provide advice and assistance to teachers, students, and the public. Some of these activities are done through programs such as the award-winning Let's Talk Science. It's especially important to expose undergraduate students to E/PO as an exciting activity and possible career.

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