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Making Astronomy Authentic; One Educator’s Textbook Transformation

Many educators that come to The Online Telescope have spotted a glaring problem in astronomy education. Greg Schwanbeck, a Science Teacher & Instructional Technology Coach for grades 11 and 12 put this frustration into words “ I had known for a long time that my students were learning ABOUT Astronomy but not actually DOING Astronomy.”


This is a central problem and one that is often not resolved unless the student decides to pursue astronomy in higher education. Those who choose this path represent a fraction of students who took an interest in the subject in school.


For example, as girls progress through their schooling, they become less interested in STEM. In high school alone, 60% of girls who were interested in STEM as a freshman are no longer interested by graduation. The same is true for boys, with 36% interested as a freshman decreasing to 24% (Gerlach, 2021).


The big question is why?


52% of Americans choose not to pursue a degree in STEM because they perceive it as “too hard”. A concerning 80% of students make a conscious decision by 8th grade whether they think they are good or not in math and science. It is important to note that this decision is based upon their perception of math and science and is not a reflection of their own ability (Gerlach, 2021).


Such perceptions are embedded within our culture and are faced by educators in the classroom every day. However, research shows that students who participate in hands-on STEM activities not only report gains in STEM content knowledge but show an improvement in creative tendencies and perceptions of STEM and careers (Gerlach, 2021; Gerlad, Rhonda, Tyler-Woof, et al 2013).


Defining STEM in the classroom is becoming increasingly difficult as the fields constantly evolve. A simple split between chemistry, biology, and physics is no longer an effective representation of what it means to participate in STEM, just ask an astrobiologist or astrogeologist! The problem? There exists a disconnect between STEM as a definition and students' understanding of STEM.


How then, can student perception of STEM subjects evolve beyond the textbook to encompass real-world examples? It’s about using creativity, critical thinking, and other skills to solve real problems and observe the results.


When it comes to teaching astronomy, implementing hands-on activities is much harder. How do you connect the Drake equation or measuring the angular size of an object to an experiential activity? Greg pinpointed a number of issues that make this task difficult.


“I’m not able to require students to attend observation nights, and even if I were able to we don't have an observatory and we're covered in clouds and my schedule in the evenings is too hectic... As a result, for years my Astronomy has been a descriptive course in which students learn about what astronomers do, but rarely engage in these activities themselves.”


He continues, with The Online Telescope “my students are finally able to "do" astronomy in an authentic, hands-on way befitting of a science course.”


Greg, like other educators across the globe, is leveraging The Online Telescope and curriculum-aligned lesson plans to combat the financial, technological, and geographical problems that are unique to teaching about space.


With critical thinking, creative thinking, scientific literacy, and technical literacy listed as the current top skills that The Online Telescope helps students develop, textbook concepts are being connected to real-world and real-object examples. By controlling telescopes, capturing images, and completing lessons, students are finally able to develop a connection between the definition of astronomy and their understanding of the STEM subject matter.


Having implemented The Online Telescope in the classroom for over a year, Greg has noticed several of his students enjoying the platform“ to the point that they have used it for fun, outside of the requirements of the class. I’ve often had students excitedly say “check out this photo I took!” and when I look I realize the photo is unrelated to a Quest or other assignment.”


Exemplifying increased levels of engagement, and independent learning indicates that by participating in these hands-on learning activities, attitudes towards math and science in Greg’s classes are being positively influenced. Though the goal is not necessarily to inspire all students to pursue a degree in STEM, fostering an appreciation and interest in STEM by removing some of those initial negative associations through engaging activities will help students to become “more skilled as Global Citizens and more compassionate people”.


infographic illustrating the main statistics
Is Interest in STEM Fading? Infographic

Sources

Gerlach J., 2021. Is STEM Interest Fading with Students?. [online] Available at: <https://everfi.com/infographic/k-12/is-stem-interest-fading-with-students/> [Accessed 10 February 2022].


Knezek, G., Christensen, R., Tyler-Wood, T., and Periathiruvadi, S., 2013.

Impact of Environmental Power Monitoring Activities on Middle School Student Perceptions of STEM. Science Education International, [online] 24(1), pp.8-123. Available at: < https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1015828> [Accessed 10 February 2022].