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Mercury, May/June 1995 Table of Contents

(c) 1995 Astronomical Society of the Pacific

When problems affect astronomy, they affect American minorities disproportionately. Science education is failing a large fraction of our kids; it is failing an even larger fraction of minority kids. Graduate students struggle to prove themselves; minority grads have to struggle harder. Tenured academic jobs are tough to come by; they are tougher for minorities.

Among the high achievers in schools, the science journalists, the planetarium visitors, the teachers, the amateurs, and the researchers, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are few. Many astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts would rather not think about that fact. The few do not have that luxury.

They are the pioneers, the first scientists many of their families and communities have ever known, the first scientists of color many of their colleagues have ever met. The conspicuousness of minority scientists, or of their absence, carries with it a special set of problems. Will my colleagues construe a dumb question as a reflection on all blacks? If I fail, does my whole community fail? How am I to juggle my role as mentor with all the other responsibilities of academic life? A minority scientist is always a minority as well as a scientist.

To be sure, astronomers, whatever their race or ethnicity, are among the most privileged people in the world. But the representation of minorities in science is more than an issue of scientists. It is a canary in a coal mine, a visible signal that something is wrong with the way we educate our kids, all our kids. The problems with science and science education affect everyone, but it is minorities who feel them first and strongest.

Not only do schools fail to provide adequate instruction, kids do not receive the support from their families, communities, and peers that they need to succeed academically. College and grad school are expensive, both in the dollars you spend and in the dollars you forego. Our education system requires Herculean perseverance from students in physical science. Most students stay clear of it; the perceived potential for success -- and for contributing to society -- is greater in law, medicine, engineering, finance, and the social sciences. The few who do wind up in faculty positions find that academia is not always welcoming.

This is why it isn't enough to say that we're meritocratic, that we accept anyone regardless of race. We have to be pro-active. Individual scientists, amateurs, and laypeople need to reach out to marginalized communities, and the astronomical community must provide institutional support and encouragement. Science centers and planetariums are leading the way. They have realized it isn't enough for them to throw open their doors; Latin names on a placard just don't cut it anymore. Nowadays, science centers are more engaging than ever before.

These are exciting times, when astronomy education and the profession have a chance to reshape themselves. Astronomers and educators alike are realizing that the conditions under which we operate have a direct bearing on the quality of our work. We need to be more tolerant of the diversity of talents, we need to be more supportive of our colleagues, we need to make the graduate degree a more flexible qualification, we need to reach out to the public and let the public reach out to us. Out of these unsettled times will come an astronomical community more at ease with itself and better able to tackle the challenges of science in the third millennium.


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