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Astronomy Education in the United States

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Andrew Fraknoi, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Ave., San Francisco, CA 94112
E-mail: fraknoiandrew {at}, [Version 2.1; copyright 1998, A. Fraknoi]

This is an updated, expanded version of an invited talk given at the 189th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, held in Toronto, Canada in January 1997. An earlier version was published in Astronomy Education: Current Developments, Future Coordination, edited by J. Percy (1996, Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series).

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Domains of Astronomy Education
3. Graduate Education
4. Undergraduate Education
5. K-12 Education
6. Informal Education Institutions
     A. Planetaria
     B. Museums
     C. Observatory Visitor Centers
     D. NASA Centers and Divisions
     E. Other Institutions
7. Amateur Astronomers
8. Astronomy Interpretation Community
     A. Magazines
     B. Daily Newspapers (Radio/TV News)
     C. Radio and Television Programming
     D. Nontechnical Books for Adults
     E. Children's Books
     F. The World Wide Web
9. Conclusion
10. References

1. Introduction

Let me begin by asking the question: where does astronomy education take place in the United States and Canada? I suspect many of you who teach would say, it takes place in classrooms just like mine. But I want to argue that astronomy education happens in many other places as well:

  • it happens in hundreds of planetariums and museums

  • it happens at meetings of amateur astronomers around the country

  • it happens in front of television and radio sets (and, alas, less and less frequently, when someone reads a good astronomy story in a newspaper)

  • it happens when someone reads a popular book on astronomy, or leafs through a science magazine

  • it happens in youth groups taking an overnight hike and learning about the stars

  • it happens when someone surfs the astronomy resources on the internet.

This is not to say that the classroom is not a vital and large part of the puzzle. In the U.S. for example, formal education is a big business. At all levels, from kindergarten to college, the U.S. in 1997 enrolled 67 million students -- 38 million in grades K-8, 14 million in grades 9-12, and 15 million in colleges and universities. The entire U.S. educational system employs almost 5 million teachers and other staff. The annual cost of the U.S. educational enterprise is almost $500 billion, about 8% of our gross domestic product. Are we getting our money's worth?

In 1988, the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, conducted a survey of a representative sample of 2,041 American adults to get a sense of their scientific literacy. Among the 75 basic science questions was one about the Earth:

1. Does the Earth go around the Sun or the Sun around the Earth? 21% got it wrong and 7% said they did not know
2. The 72% who got it right were then asked what period of time the trip took. 45% got it right, 17% said 1 day, 2% said one month, 8% said they did not know.

This means 94 million people in our country could not correctly say that the Earth went around the Sun AND that it took a year to do so. And astronomy is not alone in being a field about which Americans know little. The Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government reported in 1991 that 47% of US 17-year olds could not convert 9 parts of ten to a percentage and that (in a multiple choice survey) 63% of adult Americans thought that lasers work by focusing sound waves. [Reported in Beardsley, T. "Teaching Real Science" in Scientific American, Oct. 1992, p. 98.]

In September 1993, the Dept. of Education issued the report of a survey on adult literacy in the U.S. In one question, those in the survey were given a calculator, were told the cost a carpet per square yard, and were given the size of a room. The question was, how much should carpet cost to cover the entire room. Even with a calculator, 96% of those interviewed could NOT do it correctly. [See Barber, B. "America Skips School" in Harper's, Nov. 1993, p. 39.]

That's one part of our problem; here is another. In June 1990, the Gallup organization conducted a national survey of beliefs among adult Americans. About one in four said they believed in the basic premise of astrology, and 74% read their horoscopes at least occasionally. 47% thought that UFO's are real, and 27% thought that aliens have actually touched down and visited the Earth.

Now you may laugh at the notion of taking this kind of belief seriously. But if a large number of our citizens (and even our leaders) believes that our lives are governed by magic and superstition, will they feel the same urgency we do about the need for more science and technology education to solve the difficult problems of our age? And if you don't believe that such fiction sciences have an influence, I should perhaps just remind you of the revelation during the Reagan administration, that a San Francisco astrologer named Joan Quigley was given control over the president's schedule during much of his time in the White House.

What makes this kind of widespread belief in pseudoscience and widespread ignorance about science possible? Greedy and ignorant media, cynical publishers, and scientists sticking their heads in the sand all bear some of the responsibility, but our system of education is certainly a main culprit. Many teachers, especially at the elementary level, just don't have adequate training in science and the scientific method. Thus it is a lot easier and less frightening for them to teach as little science as possible or to teach science out of the textbook. And many high schools in the U.S. spent the 1980's relaxing their requirements and offerings in science to the point where we might say they are not just relaxed, they're ASLEEP.

In 1986, the National Science Teachers' Association surveyed the high school teaching scene. To take one example, of the 24,000 high school in the US, about 1/3 offered no physics course at all. Many of the courses that were offered in physics are taught by teachers whose training is in some other field. And of the physics teachers, 82% taught only two or one physics classes in a school year! In the decade since this survey, some tightening of standards has taken place but its effect on overall levels of physics literacy have been small so far.

That same survey showed that in the year of the survey, only 57% of US high school students were enrolled in any science class! 43% were taking no science at all that year! Of the 1990 graduating class, fewer than 50% took a chemistry class, and about 20% took physics. (In more recent surveys, this rose to about 24%, touted by some observers as a marvelous step forward!) Contrast that with other countries where students take three science classes every year of high school.

A 1985 survey by the Stanford School of Education revealed an interesting fact about the roots of the problem. A typical elementary school student in the US spends about 25 hours per week in instructional activities (that by itself is sobering). But of those 25 hours, how much time does a student spend on science? What would you guess ... a fifth, an eighth? The answer turned out to be 44 minutes or about 3% -- and much of that on learning vocabulary rather than discovering ideas.

But I want to follow these sobering statistics with a positive thought: survey after survey reveals that when students are asked what topic in science is most interesting to them, the top two winners are consistently dinosaurs and outer space. The fascination of astronomy is a powerful tool for engaging the intellect and imagination of our youngsters, and this is what encourages us to work to make it part of the positive school experience of every child.

Nor do I want to imply that the public is necessarily uniformly hostile toward astronomy (or even science). There is by all indications a tremendous hunger among many people in this country to share in the excitement of scientific discovery and to know more about the fruits of scientific exploration. And astronomy seems to be near the top of the list of topics the public is eager to learn more about. The problem is more that this hunger is so often left unsatisfied, that the meager meal of science gruel set before the public by our educational system and the media, leaves them like Oliver Twist, dreaming of a richer repast.

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