Why do we teach astronomy?

I just spent a week in Seattle at the 217th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society. If you’re here via my Twitter feed, you’ve been bombarded with my #aas217 tweets. I’ll be sharing some thoughts and experiences in future posts. There was one experience that really sticks in my memory, though.

Ed Prather from the Center for Astronomy Education led a workshop that I attended. I’ve been to a number CAE workshops with Ed. He’s intense. You don’t have “thin” conversations with Ed.

Ed and his colleagues are dedicated to teaching (and teaching  teachers to teach) “Astro 101”, the general education course that 100,000’s of non-Science undergraduates take each year. It’s likely their first, last and only science course. As Ed proclaims, and with which I wholeheartedly agree, we need to teach these people science. Not because they’re on their way to becoming scientists – that audience isn’t taking “Astro 101”. Rather, these people are the next generation of teachers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, parents.  In this age of technology, medical advances and global warming, it’s vital that the next generation of voters be scientifically literate.

Yes, YES! Just the pep talk that gets my heart pounding! And then Ed continued…

Why it is so critical? Because high-tech, science-related jobs in the United States are not being filled by Americans.


Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with patriotism. In fact, I admire how strong his convictions are. And if I dig deep enough in my brain and heart, I’ll probably say the same thing about Canadian kids. But I haven’t thought about it that way. I’m still at the “let’s do this for our kids because they’re inheriting our mess.” Maybe that’s naive of me. Or maybe it’s a Canadian/American thing. Either way, we all agree that scientifically literate citizens are critical to our — all of our — future.

About Peter Newbury

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3 Responses to Why do we teach astronomy?

  1. What a big responsibility: teaching the single university science course all those important people will ever take. I think the one science-y thing I wish more people understood is about the process – too often in public discourse it’s treated as a failure when the body of evidence changes over time. But that’s how it works!

    Oh, and wonder. If you could also teach a healthy wonder about the natural world, that would be good too (but it might not help with the nation-building).

    • There are instructors, I’m sure, who don’t get as worked up as me! But you’ve got to be passionate about your job, right?

      Your comment about “wonder” is interesting. It reminds me of a conversation I have regularly with colleagues. What if an instructor puts on an entertaining, daily performance that grabs students’ attention but the amount of measurable learning that occurs? Who knows. The question is, Is that okay? Perhaps the instructor has “hooked” the students so they’ll continue in the area. Hmm, sounds like a good research project for me….Thx for the comment!

  2. I think that this afirmation “let’s do this for our kids because they’re inheriting our mess” is true, in part.

    We have responsability about our actions and responsability on our kids, yes! But we can’t prevent wars and conflicts. We are wrong if we think we’ll fix the world. So, what is the most important thing in that case? Our real responsability is that we must provide a good education to our children. Although I have no children yet.


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