About Education and Public Outreach
OUTREACH: WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT, AND HOW TO SUCCEED
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
What People Know about Astronomy
Why Do People Acquire Misconceptions?
How People Learn
Astronomers in the Classroom
The School Curriculum
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
- 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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