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Article by John Percy - 1995
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Astronomy Education: A Global Perspective

John Percy
Division of Sciences
University of Toronto
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

Planetarian, September 1995

Planetarians are part of a worldwide network of astronomy educators-"kindred spirits" in the communication of astronomy. This network includes planetarians in other countries, and also educators and astronomers (both professional and amateur) working in other settings but sharing the same goals. This article is written from my perspective as president of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Commission on the Teaching of Astronomy.


Astronomers are concerned about astronomy education because it affects the recruitment and training of future astronomers. It also affects the awareness, understanding and appreciation of astronomy by the taxpayers who support us. Astronomy has a wider educational and cultural significance, however, and most professional astronomers understand and support this. Astronomy is deeply rooted in almost every culture by virtue of its practical applications and its philosophical implications. It shows us a universe which is vast, varied and beautiful; it shows our place in time and space, and gives us a "cosmic perspective." It harnesses curiosity, imagination, and a sense of shared exploration and intellectual excitement. It shows "how small our bodies, how large our minds" (Henri Poincaré). It helps to advance physics and the other sciences by providing a cosmic laboratory with extreme environments (black holes!). In its own right, it is one of the most rapidly- moving sciences of our day. For all of these reasons, astronomy has the potential to increase public interest in science, and to attract young people to study science and engineering. It provides an enjoyable hobby for millions of people.

Why, then, is astronomy so often the "poor cousin" in the school science curriculum? The same problems and issues seem to occur all over the world: (i) few teachers, especially at the elementary level, have any training in astronomy; (ii) teachers think that astronomy must be technical and mathematical, and requires elaborate teaching equipment; (iii) simple, inexpensive, "hands-on" activities are needed-preferably ones which get around the problem that "the stars come out at night, the students don't; (iv) inappropriate teaching techniques fail to overcome students' ingrained misconceptions about physical and astronomical phenomena; (v) many students (especially girls) are turned off science at an early age; (vi) scientific illiteracy is widespread among students and the public.

Current Developments in the US

In the US, much is being done to tackle these problems, thanks to the education budget of the National Science Foundation-over half a billion dollars annually. The "flagship" astronomy education project was STAR: Science Teaching through its Astronomical Roots, based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). After careful research on students' learning processes and misconceptions, STAR developed a jargon-free curriculum and simple, hands-on activities and equipment. These were tested and refined by expert teachers, then disseminated to teacher-agents across the country in a series of workshops. Similar curriculum projects, based on the same model, are being developed for students from kindergarten to college level, at CfA and elsewhere. In addition, there are projects to: (i) link teachers and students with professional and amateur astronomers; (ii) provide astronomical images and data, along with necessary software for classroom activities and research; (iii) develop other modern lab activities and research opportunities for high school and college; (iv) provide telescopes, instruments, and faculty grants to facilitate undergraduate research; (v) upgrade instructors' skills at all levels, especially through summer workshops; (vi) produce resource materials and disseminate them widely.

The results of these efforts will soon be available to astronomy educators around the world. In order to facilitate this process, to co-ordinate the next phase of development of astronomy education, and to ensure that present efforts meet the needs of all students, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific is holding a major symposium on astronomy education on June 24-25, 1995 at the University of Maryland. The proceedings of this conference should be the definitive guide to astronomy education in the US.

Astronomy Beyond the US

In contrast with the US system of education, the "European" system (which has been adopted in many other countries) tends to be built around a national curriculum, often with standardized exams which select students for elite high schools and/or university. The other students receive appropriate vocational education. In this system, astronomy is often taught as a rigorous science in high school, by teachers who took at least one astronomy course in their undergraduate or teacher training program. Astronomy is almost never taught in university as a "science option" for non-science students, as it is to hundreds of thousands of US college students each year. Nevertheless, European astronomy educators are concerned about getting more and better astronomy in their schools and universities, and this led in 1994 to a major conference in Munich, and to the formation of the European Association of Astronomy Educators.

Education Programs of the IAU

The IAU, the world organization of professional astronomers, is a non-governmental union founded in 1922 to "promote and safeguard astronomy, and to develop it through international co-operation." The IAU currently has 60 member countries (up from 51 in 1988 due to political reorganization in Europe) and 7839 individual members (up from 6711 in 1988, presumably due to a real growth in astronomy over the last decade or two). The IAU is administratively "lean;" most of its funds go to the development of astronomy. It is funded by its member countries, according to the number of individual members in the country, and its ability to pay. There is no individual membership fee, but there are qualifications: normally a Ph.D. in astronomy, and a few years of experience as a professional astronomer. Since very few planetarians qualify for IAU membership, is there any reason or possibility for liaison between the IAU and the IPS? I think so.

The IAU's education programs are carried out through the one of its 40 "commissions" or interest groups which is devoted to education: Commission 46, on the Teaching of Astronomy (CTA). CTA exists "to further the development and improvement of astronomical education at all levels, throughout the world." Among its 150 members are national representatives from each country; Jay Pasachoff (Williams College) is the US representative. Its Executive Committee is a "task group" of individuals concerned with specific programs or projects, or specific areas of the world. Years ago, the IPS had a representative on that committee; I propose that we restore that arrangement.

The CTA's programs include a Newsletter, with triennial national reports; meetings associated with IAU General Assemblies and Regional Meetings, including a one-day workshop for local teachers at each General Assembly; IAU Colloquium #105 (The Teaching of Astronomy," held in Williamstown USA in 1988, the Visiting Lecturers' Program, which sends experienced astronomer-educators into "target" countries (most recently, Paraguay and Peru) for up to several months to give courses and develop collaborations; the International Schools for Young Astronomers (co-sponsored by UNESCO)-intensive three-week schools held every year or two for advanced students and young astronomers and teachers in different parts of the developing world (currently India (1994), Egypt (1994) and Brazil (1995)); the Traveling Telescope, a Celestron-8 telescope and research-grade instruments to be used in countries (currently Paraguay) where astronomical research is in a developing stage. The national representatives play an important role in coordinating astronomy education in their countries, and in providing a two-way communication channel with the IAU.

Note that most (but not all) of these activities are designed for developing countries. The IAU also has a Working Group on the Worldwide Development of Astronomy, and Commission 38 (Exchange of Astronomers), which also promote and facilitate the development of astronomy.

We should not forget the needs of the developing countries. There are almost a hundred countries worldwide with some form of astronomical activity. Only 60 are members of the IAU, and only about half of these could be called fully-developed. Knowing that this includes the US, with all of its educational challenges, there is obviously much to be done!

Astronomers and astronomy educators in the developing countries need opportunities to be visited and to visit abroad; they need books, journals and equipment which fit their needs and their culture. A common phenomenon in the developing countries is the "lone astronomer"-one individual (or at most a small group) who is responsible for all astronomy education at all levels-school, university and the public.

Many of CTA's activities are relevant and accessible to planetarians. Its semi-annual newsletter is now available electronically (from Armando Arellano Ferro: armando The proceedings of the Williamstown meeting (The Teaching of Astronomy, edited by J.M. Pasachoff and J.R. Percy, published by Cambridge University Press, 1990) is still the best overview of astronomy education worldwide. The next IAU CTA-supported meeting will be in London UK, July 8-12, 1996; planetarians are cordially invited. The one-day teachers' workshops held at IAU General Assemblies, Regional Meetings, and some specialized meetings, almost always involve local planetarium staff. Planetariums are often an important facility (sometimes the only facility) in developing countries-in India, for instance, where they have helped to promote public and government interest in the development of astronomy.

Astronomy Education Around the World

When I give talks on the topic of this article, I show slides of astronomy education activities from a variety of countries:

  • simple, inexpensive childrens' astronomy textbooks from Mexico; the same approach is now being taken to reach the disadvantaged schools in South Africa.
  • "sleepovers" under the planetarium sky in New Zealand, and "Pipehenge"-an astronomical "jungle gym" from the same country.
  • hands-on science centres built in former observatories (Australia) and railway stations (New Zealand), and a planetarium built in a former gasworks (Poland).
  • scale models of the solar system in parks (Switzerland), towns (Poland) and in a whole province (Spain).
  • public observatories-a rarity in North America, but a tradition in Europe, and now a popular facility in Japan.
  • simple, hands-on activities for high school students in Uruguay (not just the US).
  • summer institutes for teachers; a regular and well-developed program in France, years before they became common in the US.
  • journals and newsletters on astronomy education: long-standing in France and Germany; still lacking in the US.
  • undergraduate research opportunities, pioneered at the Maria Mitchell Observatory, Nantucket, USA.
  • distance education: The Open University (UK), with more students in one astronomy course than in all other astronomy courses in the UK combined!
  • the role of amateur astronomers, exemplified by Astronomy Day programs in the US and elsewhere.
  • astronomy in the media: Patrick Moore (UK) has the longest-running program on British TV, and has published over 100 books!

How Astronomy Educators Can Help

Astronomy education worldwide will be most successful if everyone pitches in to help-amateur and professional astronomers; teachers, planetarium and science centre staff; publishers and the media; scientific and educational societies; government, school boards and industry.

  • make education a part of your institution, association or club: appoint an education coordinator; include an education column in your newsletter, and education talks at your meetings.
  • be aware of developments in education: research on learning, and changes in the local school science curriculum; form coalitions on astronomy education in your area; bring the members together for meetings occasionally.
  • seek more funds for science education.
  • do your "bit" for astronomy education: give (or arrange) a public lecture; write a popular article; pass on your knowledge and enthusiasm to teachers and students (especially from underserved groups); support your local schools and teachers; publicize the practical and cultural benefits of astronomy.
  • get more and better education in: day and night schools; museums, science centres and planetariums; parks and conservation areas; libraries.
  • help improve astronomy in books and the media: speak out against pseudoscience; work with the news media; help your local library choose better astronomy books; review and improve school science textbooks.
  • lobby for, and help develop a planetarium, science centre or public observatory.
  • support astronomy education internationally, especially in the developing countries: learn more about these topics; support programs to send surplus books and journals to developing countries; communicate with, visit, or otherwise help the "lone astronomers;" support the work of the IAU.


In addition to The Teaching of Astronomy and the electronic newsletter of IAU Commission 46 mentioned earlier, the best and most convenient sources of information on astronomy education are the articles appearing regularly in Mercury, the popular journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco CA 941121787.

If you want more information or advice on astronomy education worldwide, please feel free to contact me.

Reproduced from the Planetarian, Vol. 24 #3, September 1995. Copyright 1995 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.

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