The Importance of Investigating the World Surrounding Us

Humans have a vast ability to notice visual cues and patterns

Recently I saw a video showing a room that slowly morphed from one arrangement and decor to another over the course of a minute or two.  The change happened so slowly I was barely aware there were any changes.  It reminded me of the video educators show to demonstrate perception where viewers are asked to count the number of times one team passes a basketball.  Meanwhile a person in a gorilla suit walks into the midst of the two teams, beats its chest, then leaves.  Most people don’t notice the gorilla until it is pointed out to them on a second viewing.  These two videos may demonstrate how many things happen too slowly, or how we are focused on one aspect too intently to notice change happening right in front of us.  

It’s not through lack of experience of looking for changes in the visual pattern; we are, after all, visually oriented creatures.  From the time we are born, we observe the patterns around us and associate certain shapes, such as a bottle, with fulfillment of needs.  Gradually we start to associate certain sounds with those visuals, and still later the set of visual markings we call text with the former sounds and visuals.  And, we are trained to notice these changes from a young age. “Spot the Difference” puzzles are commonly found in newspapers and magazines.  I fondly recall Highlights Magazine  and looking to find the hidden objects in pictures.  Or searching for Waldo in a sea of people.  Some areas of astronomy have a similar investigative approach, comparing images of the same scene captured at different times. This was the method used to discover new Solar System objects, most notably Pluto.  We now have computers and advanced software to do this for us.

The ability to pick out changes, to use these visual cues without relying on software to detect them, is something we as educators should encourage more often. However, a common way we engage people in education is to provide the language for a phenomenon before allowing learners the opportunity to experience it on their own.  In essence, we provide the model explaining what something is rather than having the learner discover their own.  This is particularly noted when there are predetermined outcomes to an investigation or when students are engaged in confirmation activities.  Allowing learners to explore first before applying language does take longer, however it takes advantage of their innate curiosity and ability to notice.  Similarly, when we carry out outreach events we as educators have a tendency to tell people what they are looking at in detail before they have a chance to see it for themselves.  It’s akin to providing the answers to the above-mentioned puzzles without offering the challenge for people to discover them on their own.

Another option is to give people a couple facts about a phenomenon without additional explanation, then observe and listen for signs of wonder and curiosity.  This type of interaction promotes thought on the part of the audience even though they were provided some of the initial language associated with the phenomenon and usually elicits questions about what they hear or notice.  In formal education, this process/method is generally referred to as guided inquiry, with the teacher acting as facilitator for student investigations.  Learners have the opportunity to experience a phenomenon and then ask questions for their own investigations.  

It isn’t difficult to find a phenomenon to observe and investigate; they are all around us and waiting for us to notice.  One of my favorite cartoons I show to participants in my workshops demonstrates this.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Some might take issue with the idea of “unweaving the rainbow,” and comment it detracts from awe and wonder at the natural world. But for those of us in the sciences, knowing there are noticeable patterns all around us enhances our wonder and curiosity. We seek to understand how the universe works.  Knowing there are patterns – and with a little work we can decipher them – promotes curiosity and the excitement of discovery.  And it’s only a small step to bring learners of all ages along as we seek to reveal these patterns. 

After all, we all have had lots of practice with this, while growing up: noticing and building our own models to explain the world we find ourselves immersed in.

This post originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

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The Importance of Fostering Curiosity

Knowledge isn’t the same as the ability to figure things out — and the latter is crucial.

Curiosity is innate in humans. Allowing learners to observe and wonder and ask questions to investigate on their own will spark a more continuous curiosity about the world and universe. This is a better mode, compared to when we supply all the answers or have learners engage in activities with predetermined questions and outcomes.

There are lots of phenomena accessible to learners, and most people pay them little mind because they don’t really understand the physical mechanisms of what is going on. The scientific endeavor itself has done little to allow the growth of curiosity in learners from various backgrounds. Many times, the phenomena the researchers are studying are inaccessible to ordinary people, and the explanations of what they are researching are too esoteric to make sense.

And so we decide all these wonderful things are not for us to know or understand. We might marvel at what the scientists have discovered, but those discoveries remain remote and obscure.

This is particularly prevalent when it comes to seemingly disparate phenomena. Not having the opportunity to ask questions and investigate patterns leaves most people unable to make the connections needed to properly understand the larger picture of how the universe operates. Even if people don’t know the particulars about a phenomenon, they usually know someone else who does. Thus, they put their trust, or perhaps lack of trust, in these others who purport to know. Without their own knowledge and understanding, it is impossible to think critically about what they hear or are told. How are they to know who or what to trust? Issues such as climate change require people to have some experience and understanding on the topic so they can better judge what they hear about the challenges and solutions.

Knowledge isn’t the same as the ability to figure things out for yourself — and the latter is more important in determining an individual’s understanding of phenomena and associated issues. With the ability to find things out, people are able to think critically about issues rather than accepting the orations of whoever is the loudest or most charismatic speaker. One result of this is how coercion has replaced persuasion and arguing for understanding. Lacking curiosity and the ability to think critically as evidence and ideas are weighed, people are susceptible to lies and deceit to coerce them to follow the loudest or most charismatic speaker — even if that person is not in their, or the planet’s, best interest.

At the core of inquiry-based education is the idea that a direct experience with an object, process, or event will result in the ability to think. Telling people what something is or how it is behaving or giving them the model up front exempts them for having to think about it. Much better to let them directly investigate how the phenomenon behaves, let them manipulate the objects to find out what happens. Even visualizations, while they can illuminate processes, create a barrier between the learner and direct experience with a phenomenon. Incorporating an analogous phenomenon that the visualization learners can manipulate would allow them to explore what they are observing and how it might change when variables are affected — like when the phenomenon is disturbed or as time progresses.

Historically, science education has done a disservice to society and culture in not adequately fostering curiosity; this is evident by the fact that politicians can say with a straight face they don’t understand (or even believe) the underlying science and declare the excuse that “they are not a scientist.” It lets them off the hook for engaging in dialogue on important issues. In this sense, “doing science” provides a test bed for ideas, an avenue for developing critical thinking skills, and a means to develop solutions to questions and problems of great interest to culture and society. It is impossible to keep the scientific and political realms separate. Evolution, climate change, land use issues, endangered species, and many other issues are scientific in nature and yet provide information and interpretations of natural phenomena needed to make political decisions.

As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure the learners in our charge are given the opportunity to have direct experiences so they can develop the skills to engage in productive discourse about the natural world and associated issues. We can continue to offer them experiences from which they can ponder and test, and eventually apply, to their own lives —and to our mutual lives on this planet we all call home.

Image: NASA

This post originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

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Earth is Home, Home is Earth

Reminding ourselves of our planetary home helps create emotional attachment

As astronomy educators, we frequently have learners write out their addresses in a manner to encourage them to broaden their definition of home and to see themselves as part of the greater cosmos. As an educator at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, mine might look like this:
The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, California, United States, North America, Earth, Sol System, Milky Way Galaxy, Universe.

Usually this is done to help open a window to the universe. Perhaps a more appropriate way is to use such an exercise as a mirror, to help learners understand they are a part of a planetary community on Earth.

The idea of home is one most of us inherently understand. We ask about one another’s hometowns, the place where we spent our formative years. We talk about going home for the holidays, or going away from home to go to university. Home is often where we find our families, our oldest friends, the places where we first learned about the world. Even as adults with our own homes perhaps with a spouse and children, we still look back at our original homes with longing. (Of course, this is not true for everyone, and there are circumstances where home is not looked upon fondly. Some people have the belief their ultimate home is in some “other” place where they go after they die. At many funerals eulogies speak of the deceased “going home.”)

Previous columns have noted how events outside a learner’s experience, whether in time or space, are difficult for them to incorporate into their world view. It is possible the disconnects we have for events far away are due in part because we do not consider those areas as “home.” Events occurring in places or with objects we are familiar with hold greater meaning for us. Two cases in point made events more real for me and really “hit home.” A shooting at Umpqua Community College a few years ago took place in a classroom I had used for summer sessions for young learners. When the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry, I later realized I had seen some of the flight hardware as it was prepped for flight. Both events became more real for me, eliciting an emotional reaction. Somehow with both I was involved and impacted.

For educators wishing for learners to develop an understanding and caring for the Earth particularly when it comes to climate change, we need to help them make a connection and build empathy for what is taking place even though they are not directly impacted. In short, we need to help learners think of the entire planet as their home, and not just the small part where they grew up or currently live.

Astronauts have spoken on many occasions on how when on orbit or in transit to the Moon they were unable to see the political boundaries or other impacts of civilization. This seeing of the Earth as the sole and fragile abode of humankind was transformative for them. The expansion of the concept of home to encompass the entire planet is not easy. As temporal scales flummox many people, so do those of distance.

Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders captured this photograph of our fragile home planet. [NASA]

A staple of many science fiction stories is the migration of humans away from Earth due to environmental catastrophe, usually climate change making our planet unable to sustain civilization as we currently know it. In the stories, Earth takes on a mythical quality, with our space-faring descendants recognizing it as their place of origin, their home world. This scenario is all too plausible for our actual future, though there currently is no “Planet B” with similar attributes to Earth where civilization could resume its activities.

While our planet is relatively small and much of our modern technology has shrunk our world, it remains difficult to relate to cultures other than our own even though we may have spent time in them.

As noted in past columns, western-European-derived cultures tend to develop a transactional approach to their interactions with the Earth. On the other hand, Indigenous cultures tend toward a relational approach, seeing their lives intertwined with the natural world and noting how everything is connected in some manner. This latter approach increases the chance of understanding how cause and effect relationships might influence parts of the system far from what is under direct observation. In some ways, modern science has adopted this systems approach building models reflecting more far reaching relationships between what were once thought of as disparate and discrete phenomena. Bringing a relational approach into our interactions with learners can help break down barriers to allow a more expansive view of our home planet and hopefully affect the future where we no longer have to hold out hope for Planet B.

This post originally appeared in the Autumn 2021 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

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Think Cosmically, Act Globally

Astronomy education is a great way to raise awareness of the impact of human activities on Earth systems.

An early mantra of the environment movement, when ecology was entering our cultural consciousness, is “think globally, act locally.”  While the phrase came from a Scottish land use planner in the early decades of the 20th century, it became a catch phrase to encourage people to take a larger view of the impact humans have on our planet’s systems.  These days, humans have implemented policies and educational practices designed to move us toward thinking in these terms, however our ability to change is still limited, with resource extraction continuing to occur on a massive scale, and some environmental degradation actually accelerating.  Short-term thinking about resources continues to hold sway, without considering  if future generations will have any resources left to extract or about the impact on the overall system.

A number of years ago, I found myself involved as a leader of a local environmental organization in the timber country of Oregon.  During a program, we had a local astronomer present to the membership.  Introducing the astronomer, I reminded those in attendance of the old mantra “thing globally, act locally,” and suggested we might better start to “think cosmically, act globally.”  This phrase has stayed with me, and I have pondered how we might shift the focus of people to a greater spatial and temporal awareness than what we usually have.  

Humans are not particularly good at thinking in time spans longer than a human life, or even in segments of a lifetime.  Our memories are short and do not always include events that happened early in our own lives, let alone those our parents and grandparents experienced.  History is this remote telling of things that happened, but not to us.  Likewise, we have a difficult time looking forward beyond an immediate future, although many are able to take a long view (such as saving for their eventual retirement, and even that is limited to a relatively small segment of the population).  

Different branches of science concern themselves with temporal scales outside our normal experience.  Archeology and paleontology examine a deeper past, discerning patterns in the evolution of species and the development of human culture.  Climate scientists investigate the past and, using current data, project future trends.  As noted in a previous post, these two areas of science, evolution and climate change, present challenges for many in their understanding and acceptance of their validity, perhaps due to a lack of temporal thinking when it comes to time scales longer than a human life.  Or individuals may have a worldview where humans are separate from the natural world, and they act accordingly.  In essence, it is a worldview where humans are not native to this planet and can do what we wish without having to deal with the consequences of our action, even if there is an acknowledgement our children or grandchildren will have to confront the results of our current activity.

A few sciences require this sort of spatial and temporal thinking, beyond our usual experience.  Geology is one of them as we gaze into the deep past and below Earth’s surface to create a four-dimensional model of over 4.5 billion years of history.  Part of that history involves the evolution of life, and part involves the co-evolution of planetary systems such as the hydrosphere and atmosphere.  It is impossible to separate these elements from one another when considering climate science.  

It is possible astronomy education is the vehicle to raise awareness of the impact of human activities on Earth systems.  Astronomy and its siblings planetary science and astrobiology include the investigation of atmospheres, defining the properties supportive of life as well as creating the tools for more extensive investigation of planetary systems (in the sense of the systems on planets, not the array of planetary bodies around a star).  Astronomy can help us to think cosmically, and how there are habitable zones not only on individual planets, but around stars and within galaxies.  Placing Earth in a cosmic context can help us understand how fragile the global ecosystem is.  When cultures use up a local resource, they are able to pick up and migrate to a new area, where the cycle of resource extraction and depletion begins anew.  For us on Earth, once we deplete our resources, there is nowhere else to go, although this is a common theme in much science fiction.  All we are left with are the wastes from their extraction.

Founded in 2019, Astronomers for Planet Earth is a movement recognizing the fragility of our planet, and how we must adopt a cosmic perspective to fully understand our home.  As they put it, “there is no Planet B.”  Bringing together astronomy students, educators, and scientists from everywhere on Earth, Astronomers for Planet Earth aim to create change in how we view not only our planetary home, but ourselves.

Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

This post originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Posted in Astrobiology, Astronomy, Climate Change, Earth History, Education Matters, Environmental Issues, Uncategorized | 1 Comment