Learning astronomy. Teaching astronomy. Learning to teach astronomy.

Every two years, astronomy instructors from Canada, the U.S. and beyond gather together for an intensive 3-day meeting about teaching astronomy. This year’s “Cosmos in the Classroom” was held August 1-4 at the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO. Local organizer Doug Duncan joined forces with Andy Fraknoi and Dave Bruning from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) to put on the biggest Cosmos meeting yet, with more than 200 in attendance. Doug is well-known for his work in physics and astronomy education and for his booklet, “Clickers in the Astronomy Classroom”.  Just in case there weren’t enough astronomy enthusiasts there, the ASP organized a parallel meeting, “Earth & Space Science: Making Connections in Education and Public Outreach”.  It was a perfect match as many astronomy instructors are involved in outreach in their communities. I had the pleasure of being on the Programming Committee, attending sessions from both meetings and running a workshop.

At many colleges and universities, non-Science students enrol in an introductory astronomy course typically referred to as “Astro 101”. It introduces students to the Solar System, stars, galaxies and beyond. The students anticipate a “basket-weaving” course, an easy Science credit, to fulfill their undergraduate breadth requirements. They’re in for a surprise, though, because huge amounts of energy are being devoted to this course. Here’s why:

For these reasons, an effective Astro 101 course should not focused on, say,  the chemical composition of the layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere or computing the distance to a star cluster using its Cepheid variables. Rather, instructors have one term, just over a dozen weeks or so, to make their students scientifically literate. Ed Prather from the Center for Astronomy Education (CAE) in Arizona takes it one step farther: instructors have one term to model how to effectively teach science.

Overwhelming the students with facts that will have no relevance one day after the final exam is not the way to do it. Neither is lecturing the students about why science is exciting and important.

Figure 1: Enthusiastic participants at Cosmos in the Classroom” held August 1-4 at the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO.


To have any chance at retention, perhaps not all the facts but certainly the positive attitude towards science, students must generate their own knowledge. In effective Astro 101 classrooms, instructors pose a carefully-chosen sequence of questions and problems, interspersed with sufficient background information that the students are prepared to have meaningful discussions. Through this learner-centered instruction, students build their own understanding of the content, concepts and attitudes the instructor has chosen to include in the course.

“Gee, that sounds hard. I’m having enough trouble learning the content and teaching the content. Now you want me to learn to teach the content?”

Yes, exactly. And how do you learn? By attending Astro 101 meetings like Cosmos. And subscribing to the CAE’s astrolrner listserv [linkto http://astronomy101.jpl.nasa.gov] And attending the hands-on workshops run by the CAE that precede every AAS meeting. The next AAS meeting is in Seattle in January. I’ll be there – I hope you are, too.

Peter Newbury
Department of Physics and Astronomy, UBC
email: newbury@phas.ubc.ca
Twitter: @polarisdotca