Illuminating Learning in the Dome:
Constructing the international STudies of Astronomy education Reseach DataBase
Timothy F. Slater, Ph.D.
University of Wyoming
Laramie, Wyoming USA
From Planetarian, Vol. 46 No. 4, December 2017
Pages 12-16, 32
Ever since the very first carefully positioned, star-like pinpoints of light were shown to students under a planetarium dome, educators have wondered about the true educational effectiveness of the planetarium. One might naturally assume that the planetarium represents the ultimate astronomy teaching tool. Rather than braving all manner of windy weather and annoying insects by going outside night after night after night for decades with mentoring elder sky watchers to learn the sky, the planetarium allows one to readily demonstrate all heavenly motions and phenomena that can be seen from anywhere on Earth—even during daytime hours. In this sense, the educational promise of the planetarium is hindered only by the imagination of its operator.
Over the last century, most people who have visited a planetarium of any sort report that their visit is a grand experience. Even in the current digital age where children are bombarded with complex scientific visualizations and more-realistic-than-life special effects using CGI on their mobile smart phones, planetarium visitors generally describe their experiences as positive across the board. As such, most people intuitively believe that a planetarium should inherently be a superior educational learning environment to a traditional classroom. And, at the same time, most people tacitly assume that acquiring a planetarium in their community is probably worth the distributed cost.
Given the high cost of constructing a dedicated brick and mortar planetarium facility— or even the cost of purchase and maintenance of a portable planetarium using an inflatable dome—administrators and education stakeholders throughout time have often demanded some semblance of evidence of a planetarium’s educational effectiveness. Such a request seems reasonable, and one might naturally assume that planetarium education research methods and results would be widely available in the scholarly education research literature. In other words, a quick trip to a nearby university library should readily result in sufficient planetarium education research data to satisfy even the most skepti- cal stakeholders.
The problem is that it doesn’t.
At the same time, when discipline-based astronomy education and planetarium education researchers begin any systematic research study—graduate students, for instance, working on their dissertations—the first step is to conduct a thorough review of the scientific literature (Plummer 2015; Slater, Slater, Heyer, & Bailey, 2015).
In days not so far in the past, the three-fold task was: first, to visit the university library to look at databases and published literature reviews to find articles or dissertations about planetarium education; second, to make photocopies from illuminating microfiche readers or by spending hours making photocopies one page at a time of long awaited items ordered through interlibrary loan; and third, to then create a critical summary of the research landscape in order to establish an as yet unsolved education problem that was both useful to the broader community and pragmatically something that could be studied given the limited time and fiscal resources available.
Today this task of surveying the literature seems many times easier given the powerful Internet-based scholarly articles, proceedings, and theses aggregators such as ERIC, ProQuest, GoogleScholar, ResearchGate, and Academia.edu. Yet, simply searching online databases for “planetarium education” or “planetarium learning effectiveness” most often yields sorely disappointing and vapid results. In other words, planetarium education researchers building comprehensive literature reviews have much the same challenge as those aforementioned people trying to readily establish the tacitly assumed educational power of the planetarium as a teaching tool—the readily available scholarly evidence of effectiveness is far more difficult to find than one might wish.
Where is all the planetarium effectiveness evidence?
Planetarium educators and enthusiasts are left with the question of where are all of the educational effectiveness studies and hard-earned community knowledge reports about successfully teaching in the planetarium? To our surprise, written accounts for most astronomy teaching strategies and planetarium education research results are far more widely dispersed than we anticipated.
Although some reports of planetarium learning do readily appear in a traditional literature search, the number of "hits" when searching is vastly smaller than if one were doing a survey of numerical problem solving in physics education research, or mapping skills in geosciences education research. Certainly, decades of work have been described and documented in Planetarian, but this represents only a tiny fraction of what is known globally about learning in the planetarium. Perhaps the larger problem is that the most successful and busy planetarium educators are busy educating in the planetarium, rather than writing archival articles, as the veteran Planetarian editors can willingly attest.
Moreover, much of what is known about teaching and learning in the planetarium does not appear in the scholarly literature at all. Instead, this teaching knowledge is sometimes captured in professional association meeting presentations, regional planetarium educator newsletters, the 1970’s Spitz Planetarium Director’s Handbook edited by Michael Bennett, or even books such as LHS’s Planetarium Activities for Successful Shows (PASS) booklets (Gerald Mallon and Alan Gould), among many others. At the same time, much of the systematic planetarium research studies are done in pursuit of graduate degree require-ments—unpublished masters theses and doctoral dissertations.
These diverse avenues distributing research reports that are not formal refereed articles or graduate juried these or dissertations are collectively known as the "grey literature" (Slater, 2015, 2016).
As an example, consider a hypothetical planetarium director who did a first-rate, well-conceived masters thesis in 1975 doing a two-group controlled comparison study of some highly valued aspect of learning or attitude enhancement in the planetarium. Taking years to complete, this thesis study would probably have been guided and juried by three to five scholars, far more than the typical one or two peer-reviewers who referee most scholarly journal articles. One might reasonably assume this has potential to be a strong and valuable study.
But, just how would a scholar today find that study so as to either replicate it or expand upon it? The disappointing fact is that no one today would likely ever find this imaginary unpublished, decades old thesis no matter how valuable, resulting in the same study being done over and over and over again, reinventing the wheel each time by well-intended but largely unaware researchers. This represents a substantial inefficiency in the planetarium education community.
Conceptualization of the iSTAR database
Given the wealth of existing planetarium education research and teaching effectiveness knowledge that seems to be hidden beyond the traditional library walls, a concerted effort to build a system to capture a and collect these resources was initiated. The project is led by Dr. Stephanie J. Slater, director of the International CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research in collaboration with Australia’s Michael T. Fitzgerald and graduate student Saeed Salimpour of Edith Cowen University’s Institute for Education Research, Brazil’s Paulo S. Bretones of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Astronomy Education, among many others, including myself and University of Wyoming Ph.D. candidate Coty B. Tatge.
Conceived as an internationally-accessible database of both easyand hard-to-find systematic astronomy education research studies and astronomy teaching insights, this internationally collaborative project is generally known as the international STudies of Astronomy education Research database project—or iSTAR for short.
The first-steps plan to create the iSTAR database was to do the hard work of finding, categorizing, and uploading astronomy education research dissertations. Our naïve thinking was that there were not very many—predicting maybe 50 such documents existing at the most—and that using dissertations would be a good way to test out our initially established database categorization criteria.
When looking at astronomy education research dissertations written in the 1970s, the included literature review might have summarized five or six previous dissertations in the field. You might imagine our great surprise when we uncovered nearly 300 astronomy education research dissertations and theses across a myriad of topics and utilizing diverse research methods on our first cursory search.
Seemingly overnight, the sufficiently difficult task of reading and categorizing a predicted few tens of dissertations became an arduous task of reading and categorizing the actual number of hundreds of dissertations.
Any large database needs to be efficiently searchable in order to be useful. After numerous searchable in order to be useful. After numerous
iterations and valuable feedback from
the community, we decided to use a categorization
scheme that identified studies as
those being quantitative or qualitative; done
in formal, school-based settings or informal,
out-of-school settings; and based on particular
participant-demographic groups, among
many others. The categorization scheme used
for every entry in iSTAR is summarized in
In a seemingly unending stream of surprises,
another thing we quickly learned is that
dissertations completed more than twenty
years ago are not readily available in any
digital format via the Internet, and masters
theses rarely are available electronically.
The implication here is that iSTAR team
members—and by “team” I mean mostly hardworking
graduate students tirelessly working
late into the night—needed not only to obtain
bound, hard-copy dissertations through interlibrary
loan, but also needed to carefully scan
these documents into digital PDF format. You
can probably imagine how bleary-eyed this
would make even the most dedicated research
In some cases, university libraries no longer
had hard copies they were willing to loan,
resulting in us having to contact the original
authors—or their families if they had passed
away—to beg for copies to be mailed back
and forth with carefully organized tracking
numbers for these family heirlooms.
These steps all had to be done before the
documents could be read, categorized, and
then uploaded, which is time consuming
and intellectually exhausting in and of itself.
Taken together, the time required to do these
thankless tasks was unexpectedly Herculean,
but incredibly valuable in the end.
Although we certainly have in no way
exhaustively collected all the extant dissertations
and theses, let alone meeting proceedings
and newsletter contributions, we have
made a solid start and hope that the broader
community will now voluntarily help by
creating a free account and uploading their
own research dissertations, theses, papers, and
research reports if they are not already in the
Planetarium education in iSTAR’s
In much the same exciting way that a
new telescope will make first-light observations
to “see what one can see,” we completed
a cursory “what can we see?” survey of
the initially 300 uploaded dissertations and
theses. Reported in detail elsewhere (Slater, Tatge, Bretones, Slater, Schleigh, McKinnon,
& Heyer, 2016), we see that astronomy education
has been being published since the 1920s
and steadily increasing today. We can also see
that the earliest researchers were also dealing
with many of the same tenaciously thorny
teaching problems that exist today: moon
phases, seasons, and gravity.
When looking specifically at planetarium
education research revealed in iSTAR’s firstlight
survey, our initial observation is that
there was a dramatic change in the volume
and nature of planetarium education research
from before 1990 to after 1990. This is shown in
the histogram in Figure 2, adapted from Slater
and Tatge (2017, p. 10). In particular, there was
surprisingly little research production in the 1990s: We suspect this is a result of planetarium
educators being consumed by the effort
of absorbing the combined widespread introduction
of digital planetarium projectors with
the simultaneous widespread distribution of
portable planetariums with inflatable domes.
Figure 2 clearly shows a bimodal shape of
publications of empirical studies in planetarium
education research over time, first
peaking in the late 1970’s (n=13) and then
again in the late 2000’s (n=17). One observation
worth emphasizing is that the majority
of empirical research studies were conducted
as planetarium research dissertations and
theses before 2005, and since that time the
majority of research studies are published as
peer-reviewed works in scholarly journals.
This is important for interpreting the historical
context. It has been argued that dissertations
and theses should be considered part of
non-peer-reviewed gray literature base, and
should not be considered or valued as seminal
or critical literature in the same serious way
that peer-reviewed journal articles are.
For example, when working with National
Research Council committees to summarize
the existing knowledge base for astronomy
education (viz., NRC, 2012), only results from
peer-reviewed articles are supposed to be
considered. However, work by Slater (2008)
as well as Bailey and Lombardi (2015) clearly
show that much of the insightful astronomy
education research results are found among
unpublished dissertation research documents,
rather than formally published peer-review
Moreover, prior to 1990, when a graduate
student completed their dissertation that
work was often considered “finished” and
historically there was little motivation or
remuneration to republish the same study
results a second time in a scholarly journal.
Today, the scholarly world is a quite a bit
different and students in all fields are encouraged
to publish the results from dissertations
again in the form of scholarly journals, such
as the peer-reviewed Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education (JAESE.org) or the peer-reviewed
research sections of Planetarian.
The data from Figure 2 lends further weight
to the critical importance of including dissertations
and graduate theses related to planetarium
education as part of any summarizing
reviews of the broader planetarium education
iSTAR allows us to make some strong distinctions
in planetarium education research before
and after 1990. Summarized in Figure 3, we see
that general changes in each of these planetarium
education research attributes are generally
aligned with the gradual change from an
analog to digital era. Planetarium education
research was primarily conducted and distributed
through dissertations and theses using
quantitative methodologies, whereas today
the majority of research uses both qualitative
and quantitative methodologies and is more
often published through the peer-reviewed
process characteristics of journals.
Although fewer peer-reviewed articles were
published pre-1990, George Reed at West Chester
State College is responsible for the majority
of those works, and today Julia Plummer
and colleagues at Penn State University have
published and continues to publish the bulk
of studies regarding the planetarium.
Planetarium education researchers from both the analog and digital eras were mostly
focused on K-12 students’ understanding of
astronomy content; it wasn’t until digital
planetariums that researchers narrowed their
scope to focus specifically on the sun-earth-moon
system, such as lunar phases and seasons,
largely due to the broadening emphasis on the
related national education standards.
Pre-1990, the School Science and Mathematics
journal was the most central platform for
peer-reviewed, empirical planetarium education
studies, whereas today Planetarian and
the Journal of Astronomy and Earth Sciences
Education have largely usurped that role.
Recurring themes emerge
Recurring big themes do emerge when
looking at research reports in the iSTAR database.
These themes are useful for planetarium
educators to keep in mind when designing
learning experiences for their diverse audiences.
I suggest these themes in no particular
order of importance, and kindly remind
the reader that these are generalizations, and
exceptions do exist.
The first theme is that planetariums in and
of themselves are not automatically more
educationally effective than classrooms just
because they are a planetarium. In fact, it may
be that if the prescribed learning targets are
memorizing star and constellation names by
rote, a planetarium-based classroom might
be actually be an unnecessary distraction
to students more familiar with a traditional
classroom setting. Planetarium educators
would be well advised to plan purposeful
educational experiences for which the planetarium
setting is uniquely situated.
The second is that students are unlikely to
remember facts when relayed in the planetarium
any more than when facts are relayed in
the classroom. What we know from contemporary
educational theory is that ideas are best
inserted into students’ long-term memory
when matched with a memorable, narrative
story that encourages students to repeatedly
think about and encounter the idea.
Remember how students seemingly
remember the smallest details from movies
they see, yet struggle with disconnected facts
presented in the purposeful learning environment
of traditional schools? A corollary
to this is that students can only internalize
so much, and too many planetarium presentations
present an overwhelming deluge of
facts and figures because of the limited time
allocated to a planetarium visit. Planetarium
education program designers need to be well
versed in the learning sciences and interactive
learning techniques, such as those promoted by members of the Live Interactive Planetarium
Symposium (LIPS) community.
The third is related to many planetariums’
goals for improving attendee interest, attitudes,
and values about science, and science-related
career paths. As with the unrealized
hope that planetariums would inherently
be better teaching facilities for improving
student achievement, the planetarium does
not in and of itself automatically enhance
students’ attitudes toward STEM. Attendees
can have a great time at the planetarium
and thoroughly enjoy the experience, but
no extant educational theory exists that can
attribute an isolated 40-minute experience as
overriding decades of students’ negative experiences
in learning STEM.
Planetarium educators need to plan extended,
repeated, and purposeful learning experiences
when they want to enhance students’
affect toward STEM, perhaps using student
internship programs, as an example.
The future of iSTAR
iSTAR is only in its infant stages and it is
our intention that it becomes a community
nurtured, well-fed, and growing resource.
Perhaps self-serving to a researcher like myself,
we hope that iSTAR will help discipline-based
astronomy education and planetarium education
researchers and graduate students to put
their energy into timely topics, to avoid reinventing
the wheel by doing unnecessary projects,
and to more efficiently understand the
broader landscape of astronomy education.
Creating a comprehensive critical review and
synthesis of the literature as part of a larger
education research project is hard enough
without also have great difficulty in finding
extant research reports, and iSTAR should
make this task a bit easier.
We also hope that iSTAR will help stakeholders
better argue for the next generation
of constructed and designed facilities.
Rather than “yet another cool planetarium,”
perhaps more compelling cases can be made
to prospective donors by designing the “next
generation learning facility,” to which a lanetarium
serves as the keystone.
Finally, it is our desire that planetarium
educators and show designers will have
ready access to a foundation of research that
guides better and more effective show design.
For most of the last century, the pedagogical
content knowledge of astronomy teaching
has been largely based either on the long-earned
expertise of planetarians or what
tacitly seems like a good idea to well-intentioned
educators, and then shared informally
and inefficiently from one planetarium
educator to the next. iSTAR is well positioned
to be a clearing house for systematic research
reports related to teaching and learning in the
What is most needed now is for the planetarium
community to help contribute
resources to the iSTAR database. As of this
writing, there are 989 documents in iSTAR, and this probably only represents a small fraction
of what could be available to the community
at large. The infrastructure is in place to
easily create an account at istardatabase.org and upload one’s own research or to
contribute research reports, meeting contributions,
public evaluation reports, informal
white-papers, articles, theses, and dissertations
done by others. iSTAR depends entirely
on the gracious contributions of the community,
and we enthusiastically encourage your
The iSTAR community database is built
upon the collective contributions of the
broader community, and we greatly appreciate
their contributions. We would like to
specifically acknowledge the tireless intellectual
contributions of iSTAR designers
Dr. Stephanie J. Slater, Dr. Paulo S. Bretones,
and Dr. Michael T. Fitzgerald. Among many
contributors, we greatly appreciate the thankless,
heavy, day-to-day lifting by graduate
students Coty B. Tatge from the U.S. and Saeed
Salimpour from Australia.
We also greatly appreciate the financial
support of the International CAPER Center
for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,
the University of Wyoming Endowment for
Excellence in Higher Education in the U.S.,
and Edith Cowan University’s Institute for
Education Research in Australia.
Detailed information requests about iSTAR should be addressed to the
iSTARdatabase.org Coordinator Dr. Michael T. Fitzgerald from the Institute
for Education Research at Australia’s Edith Cowan University at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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