Supporting Astronomy Teaching in the Schools: Some IYA-Inspired Projects

One of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) global cornerstone projects is the Galileo Teacher Training Program, whose vision is to train thousands of teachers, worldwide, to teach astronomy and to train their colleagues.  This is a report on two summer events, and some other projects, that address the vision of GTTP.  We are aware of other exciting resources being developed elsewhere—the HIA Visitor Centre in Victoria, and the National Museum of Science and Technology, for instance.  We look forward to hearing about them in the future.

University of Toronto’s First-Ever Summer Institute for School Teachers

More than 30 high-school teachers spent August 17-19 in an intensive study of the astronomy/space component of Ontario’s revised grade nine science curriculum, and of a new resource to support the teaching of that material.  Workshops were led by Janet Dignem, Heather Theijsmeijer, and Joseph Wilson (the latter two are graduates of the U of T astronomy program).  Inspiring presentations were given by U of T faculty members Bob Abraham and Ray Jayawardhana, and my former student Dawn Lim MD, a specialist in space medicine.  Their presentations were followed by formal and informal Q&A with the speakers, and reflections, by the teachers, about how the material related to the curriculum.  Dunlap Institute journalist-in-residence Ivan Semeniuk led an excellent workshop on science communication, which is a key part of the curriculum.  A dozen individuals from organizations that provide resources for teachers (e.g. Ontario Science Centre, and Royal Astronomical Society of Canada) provided information about their programs, and talked with teachers over coffee.  Local “field trips” were hosted by Natalie Gandilo (the astro-balloon lab), Mark Ma (the instrumentation lab), and me (two centuries of astronomical heritage on the U of T campus).   Bryce Croll led an evening tour of the campus observatory, and I arranged for solar viewing in the daytime.  The teachers went away with new knowledge, confidence, and enthusiasm, and with all the Institute materials and presentations on memory sticks.  They were especially impressed by the enthusiasm and skill of our younger astronomers!

In addition to the grade nine support resource mentioned above, two teacher-colleagues began the development of a similar resource to support astronomy teaching at the grade six level.  The grade nine resource will be unveiled at the 2009 STAO conference in November, and the grade six resource early in 2010.

The Institute was generously supported by the Ontario Teachers Federation (OTF), in partnership with the U of T Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics (DAA), and the Science Teachers Association of Ontario (STAO).  I thank OTF, DAA, and STAO, my Institute co-director Malisa Mezenberg (STAO), all the people mentioned above, and summer student Robby Costa.  Thanks also to my colleague Chris Matzner for taking a special interest in the Institute, and for volunteering to visit school classes (within limits!).  I would encourage and welcome any other faculty or student colleagues—at Toronto or elsewhere—who would like to do the same.

John Percy
University of Toronto

STARS: Summer Teacher Astronomy Resource Seminar

Summer Institute for Teachers, Saint Mary’s University, July 27-29, 2009

The IYA STARS program was a great success. Twelve teachers from across Nova Scotia attended the intense three-day session, that was led by Mary
Lou Whitehorne, with full support from faculty and staff of SMU's Department of Astronomy & Physics. The university supported the event by providing financing, the venue, logistical and administrative support, and by sponsoring a welcome reception, hosted by SMU President, Dr. Colin

The course content was designed especially to meet both the needs of the grade nine science curriculum, and the objectives of the Galileo Teacher Training Program (GTTP). Three action-packed days were a mix of hands-on activities, presentations, faculty office chats, speed session on current research, hot topics, and a visit to the 3-D virtual world of SMU’s Data Cave. In addition to very full days, evening sessions were held in the Halifax Planetarium and SMU’s Burke Gaffney Observatory. The BGO was definitely a highlight!  Activities included building and working with Galileoscopes, basic optics, seasons, lunar phases and rotation, and solar rotation. Presentations ranged from the formation of the solar system, effects of solar phenomena on Earth, to stars, stellar evolution, galaxies, cosmology, and the technology that has opened so many new and exciting windows to our universe. The last day wrapped up with a wide-ranging panel discussion and a celebratory cake.  Each participant received their own Galileoscope (complete with two teacher guides), a copy of Skyways Astronomy Handbook for Teachers, and class sets of the RASC’s IYA materials, including star finders, sidewalk astronomy booklets, and astronomy trading cards. Electronic copies of handouts and presentations were also supplied to teachers on CDs.Teacher feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and we already planning for next year’s event. We had some good PR coverage, too! Our teachers were featured on the local supper-hour news, outdoors, using their just-built Galileoscopes.

There was almost instant response on Twitter and Facebook, with e-mail and phone calls from friends, relatives and colleagues who saw the TV spot.  I’m hoping that I will, at some point in the future, be able to send a GTTP certificate to these teachers. For full details on the 2009 IYA STARS program, and all of the included teaching resources, see:

Many thanks for the success of this program go to Saint Mary’s University;Dr. Colin Dodds, President; Dr. Malcolm Butler, Dean of Science;SMU Department of Astronomy & Physics, especially Dr. Marcin Sawicki, Dr. Rob Thacker, and summer student Mark Richardson; and the Halifax Centre of The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.


Mary Lou Whitehorne
1st Vice-President, RASC

Galileo’s Sons: A Canadian Documentary Film with a Strong IYA Connection

Six years ago, an award-winning astronomy documentary was made right here in Toronto, and I wasn’t even aware of it—even though two of my colleagues were involved!  Fortunately, the documentary has resurfaced in International Year of Astronomy, which is very appropriate, since it’s called “Galileo’s Sons”.

“Galileo’s Sons” (48 minutes, produced/directed by Alison Rose) is a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the Vatican Observatory—both the headquarters in Rome, and “Vatican West” in Arizona—how its Jesuit astronomers live and work, and how they integrate their research and their theological beliefs and training.  Observatory director George Coyne SJ, PhD figures prominently, as does his colleague Guy Consolmagno.  Pope John Paul appears briefly.  This thought-provoking documentary is an important contribution to the dialogue between science and religion—a topic that we astronomers should not shy away from, whatever our own beliefs.  Galileo was a devout Catholic, but still ran afoul of the Church.This documentary follows the 400-year historical thread from then to now.It also highlights an important educational project—the VaticanObservatory Summer School.  VOSS brings advanced students from developing countries (on scholarship) together with students from the more developed countries, for a one-month program of interactive seminars and field trips.  For many students, it is a defining step in their careers.  They acquire a cohort of colleagues, and a sense of community.  Several of my young colleagues in astronomy research or education are graduates of VOSS. The documentary’s production values are excellent.  The astronomy, its history and philosophy are clearly and intelligently described.  There is a balanced mix of interviews with Vatican and non-Vatican astronomers (e.g. Chris Impey), and with VOSS students.  There are the usual beauty shots of the nighttime and daytime sky, of the Vatican buildings, of the observatory headquarters at Castel Gandolfo near Rome, and of “Vatican West”.  But its most important asset is the depth and relevance of its content.

This documentary has received four awards, and excellent reviews.It deserves to be widely shown, on TV, in schools, in clubs, and inpublic settings.  For more information, and to order a copy, see:

John Percy
University of Toronto