Astronomical Phenomena as a Provocación for Learner Engagement

The total solar eclipse taking place on August 21, 2017 is a natural phenomenon on a grand scale. Though only those on the narrow swath cutting across the country from Oregon to South Carolina will see totality, everyone throughout the entire rest of the North American continent will have the potential to see a partial eclipse. One of the more remarkable aspects of this eclipse is it is taking place during normal school hours, on a day when many, if not most schools across the country are in session. For many it is the first day of school for the year. This creates for educators a teachable moment without compare, providing an opportunity to engage learners in investigating, and explaining using evidence-based reasoning this spectacular phenomenon in the sky.

So, what to do when the excitement fades and there isn’t an easily accessible phenomenon for students to experience directly? How do educators keep the momentum going? For most of the sciences, it is relatively easy to demonstrate phenomena in the classroom, or to point to something learners experience in their daily lives, thus actively engaging them in a scientific investigation. Other than an eclipse, what astronomical phenomena are learners able to experience first hand or can relate to in their own lives? The phases of the moon, and the seasons are perhaps the easiest to experience and investigate, and maybe tracking the brighter planets as they change position from night to night. Noticing that not all stars are the same color, or the same brightness is a good one, though the patterns they make in constellations and asterisms are less valuable since those patterns are not inherent to any scientific processes learners can investigate.

The truth of the matter is, most astronomical phenomena are not accessible to learners, or useful for engaging them in an active, inquiry-based classroom investigation. It isn’t that the phenomena are lacking interest for the learners, they just don’t rise to the level of a teacher posing a problem such as: “It rained last night and you noticed there were puddles of water on the playground when you got to school. When you left at the end of the day, the puddles were gone. Where did the water go?” This lack of relationship to a teacher or learner’s normal, everyday life may help explain why astronomy and space science are traditionally underrepresented in curricula and classroom instruction.

In the presence of a robust program of space exploration, particularly if humans are involved, space science instruction is able to utilize various missions as an engagement into an investigation. This works well if the phenomena under investigation bears some similarity to our experience on Earth, or has to do with the potential for life elsewhere. For example, Mars exploration is a popular subject leading to a variety of classroom experiences, possibly due to the similarity of Mars to Earth, the long history of speculation about life on Mars, and the potential for an eventual human on what is arguably the most fascinating object in the solar system beyond Earth. This use of what we might call analogous phenomena is worthwhile in that they create an indirect experience and relevance for learners. Moving to phenomena beyond the solar system presents a unique difficulty to the science educator due to their remote nature and lack of easily identifiable analogous phenomena. For example, one of the performance expectations for middle school learners in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) says “Students who demonstrate understanding can: Develop and use a model to describe the role of gravity in the motions within galaxies and the solar system.” Investigating gravity within the classroom is easily accomplished, however it can prove problematic when extended beyond to the solar system, and further to galaxies. It requires greater abstractions than many learners are able to handle. They are not able to directly observe and experience the motions, and have to infer them based on changes in position of the planets. On human time scales, motion within galaxies is less available, requiring more direct instruction from educator to learner, thus taking the investigation away from the learner-directed or educator-guided inquiry called for in the three-dimensional learning environment of an NGSS classroom.


Galaxy Cluster Abell 370 and Beyond Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Jennifer Lotz and the HFF Team (STScI)

This is an important challenge to astronomy and space science educators, to develop a rationale and identify a suite of astronomical phenomena educators can incorporate into their instruction. Imagery of distant galaxies and nebulae are stunning in their ability to show us what the universe looks like. Identifying the phenomena they display and we want learners to investigate is much more difficult. This year’s solar eclipse is perhaps setting the stage for a resurgence in space science in the classroom. It is our task to make sure the learners have something to pique their interest, a suitable provocación to engage them in the wonders of the universe.

This post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the Summer 2017 issue of Mercury magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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Looking Afar to See Ourselves

Assimilating and accommodating new ideas and ways to do things is not always an easy task. Sometimes we find ourselves too close to old and comfortable ideas, unable to find a perspective from which to evaluate the potential for the new. For learners of all ages, it is a challenge to help them shift their perspective to see how the new can fit with their existing worldview. The problem is not so much what is presented, as with how. Sometimes finding the new perspective requires a trip beyond the confines of the planet we think we know so well.

Two areas of science in particular are not well understood for the general public at large, as well as many teachers and their students: evolution and climate change. All too often, both topics are presented pedantically through a series of lectures, exercises depending on rote memorization, and perhaps a few activities with pre-determined outcomes, which do little to help students build a conceptual framework for either to fit into their basic understanding of how nature operates. This can only add to the difficulties many have accepting either or both evolution and climate science. Other areas of science do not seem to share the same disdain many people have for these particular ideas.

Part of the problem has to do with time. Time in that an understanding of both evolution and climate change require an acceptance, and ability to think about change over a time scale far greater than what people experience in their daily lives, let alone over the span of a lifetime. For the most part, we lead existential lives, moment to moment, with little thought beyond our current experience. The idea of deep time so prevalent in much of astronomy, and certainly in geology and evolutionary science, does not resonate with the average person.

In general, people are fascinated with the idea of aliens, the discovery of planets orbiting distant stars, and the exploration of planets within our own solar system. The idea life might exist on those planets piques the intrigue people feel when hearing about them. Particularly the kind of life that could look back at our system of planets and wonder the same thing. In thinking about the potential for life on these other worlds, again, people seem to have a tendency to think of that life existing in the here and now. It is equally possible these planets once had life, which went extinct, or it may more closely resemble stromatolites from early in Earth’s history with intelligence perhaps in the planet’s future. Within our own solar system Mars, while in the habitable zone, does not have life though it may have in the distant past. Venus is on the edge of the habitable zone, though a runaway greenhouse effect made for an inhospitably hot atmosphere. Neither planet currently possesses an atmosphere capable of supporting life as we know it.

trappist 1


There is a cognitive dissonance in not accepting evolution and climate science while at the same time getting excited about the potential for life on distant worlds. Both evolution and climate science are key areas of research for an astrobiologist in the quest to understand the dynamic nature of planets and their ability to support life. People find it easy to think about these phenomena when they take place elsewhere in the universe, but when we turn around and look at our own planet, we can’t apply the science to our own situation. There is an opportunity for educators to take advantage of this relationship, engaging the imagination of students while they learn about the factors that make life possible on other worlds. It may prove easier to think about the history of these distant objects than it is about our home planet. Can we apply the lessons learned on distant worlds to foster a better understanding of our own situation?

For a learner asked to learn and apply new skills and ideas, it frequently comes down to going beyond what they are familiar with, looking at a completely different situation, examining it in fine detail, then building a generalizable model to their own situation. Sometimes one is just too close to the object under scrutiny to look at it with the objectivity needed for understanding and acceptance.

This post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the spring 2017 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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Creating a Revolution, One Eclipse at a Time

Alex Longo is not a typical 16-year old. As an eighth grader, he submitted a proposal to the Mars Rover 2020 landing site selection committee. Now a high school junior, Alex’s proposal, and his in-person advocacy have resulted in the inclusion of his proposed landing site as one of the eight finalists for selection. Alex is a regular participant in NASA meetings regarding Mars exploration, giving talks and publishing papers. He was a panelist at a recent public talk given at the 2016 AGU conference in San Francisco, sharing the dais with the lead scientist for Mars exploration. Alex credits his parents taking him to see his first space shuttle launch at the age of 5 as the spark that put him on the path he is now on.

While the story of Alex is unusual due to the publicity surrounding his contribution, it is common in its demonstration of the importance of experience to spark the interest and ultimately the drive to learn and contribute in a meaningful way. While everyone in some way has had their curiosity sparked, the vast majority of people remain anonymous.

In an era when science and facts are marginalized, the experience of observing natural phenomena bears increasing importance and relevance to fostering scientific literacy. A phenomenon touches someone emotionally, activating the affective realm, creating a sense of wonder and awe, which may lead to curiosity, and then on to appreciation and understanding. The ASP’s Sky Rangers program was designed to take advantage of this progression, working with park rangers to help foster their interpretive skills about the night sky for park visitors. Interpretation is different from instruction in that it helps people process their personal experience and find relevance to their lives. Many times it does result in individuals seeking out information as their cognitive realm is activated in the quest to learn more.

The ASP’s Project ASTRO has sought for well over twenty years to spark the imagination and curiosity in young learners through providing a personal connection to someone who takes great joy in experiencing astronomical phenomena. The relationship building between volunteer astronomer and teacher, and the students they work with is in many ways far more important than the exposing of facts and data related to astronomy. The most effective partnerships are always where the astronomer actively engages learners in some aspect of astronomical phenomena, working with them and mentoring their growth in appreciation and understanding through interpretation rather than exposition.

All of us in the educational community make a great deal about inspiring the next generation of scientists, educators, and fostering a scientifically literate population. We actively work to create change, not only for future generations, but for the current one as well. Some pundits have suggested we have entered into a “post-fact” era lacking objective truth with an apparent disdain for facts and science. This “post-truth” society is still willing to embrace experience and the depth of emotion it can engender, something we can perhaps take advantage of this coming year. A total, or even a deep partial solar eclipse has the potential to create a powerful emotional experience. As one of our colleagues says related to the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, an eclipse is the most democratic experience nature has to offer. Our ability to offer this experience to all through providing safe viewing opportunities, and interpretation not tied to dry facts and statistics may result in the change we find difficult to create on our own through more formal channels such as curriculum, essays, and press releases.

If we are serious about creating a revolution in the way people consume and apply science, then perhaps those of us who have experienced a total solar eclipse on other occasions should consider including in our personal agenda for August 21, 2017 the mission of helping those who would benefit from our guidance and interpretation. As noted, personal connections are a catalyst for sparking the curiosity and interest of learners of all ages. Who knows how many Alex Longos remain uninspired and unknown out there. Perhaps even the next child you give a pair of eclipse glasses, or yield the eyepiece to so they can see the same phenomenon you found inspirational the first time you saw it for yourself many years ago.

This post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the winter 2017 issue of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Mercury magazine.


Illustration courtesy of Michael Zeiler: Great American

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This Land is Our Land, and Our Legacy

This week, President Obama declared the Bears Ears area in Utah, and the Gold Butte area in Nevada as National Monuments.  Designations not without controversy in some circles.  The primary issue those opposed to the designations have is related to their removal from places where resource harvesting is allowed.  They characterize the action as a “federal land grab,” which makes no sense since the areas already belong to the federal government.

When the Taliban tears down ancient Buddhist temples, or ISIS destroys archaeological sites we condemn them for not honoring the past. And yet, in our own country some people claim and fight for their ability to deface and dishonor the lands sacred to those who were here first. Designating these places as monuments will allow all people continued access to the land, and not lock them up for the privileged few to pillage in an effort to enrich their coffers.

Setting aside Bears Ears and Gold Butte really means these areas will remain in the public domain, giving me, and you, the ability to one day visit, and revel in the history written both in and on the rocks.

In the meantime, I continue to visit a cathedral carved from stone, with waters rushing over cliffs and through canyons, and a thin veneer of trees and brush softening the landscape.  A place belonging to all of us, and not just the privileged few as their private playground.  Our ability to care for the land “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” speaks to our ability to care for one another, preserving those places important for cultural awareness, as well as places where we find refuge in natural beauty and solitude.  It is in these places where we find the very best in ourselves, and in humanity.

Images: Yosemite National Park, California / December 24-27, 2016


Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View overlook


The lower face of Half Dome


Reflections in the Merced River


Reflections in the Merced River


Nevada Falls from Clark Point


After the snowstorm


Half Dome and the Merced River


Yosemite Falls from Clark’s Bridge

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Reflecting on Deep Time in a Young Landscape

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.

  • John Muir, Our National Parks

Going to the mountains is a pilgrimage.  For as long as I can remember, the mountains have provided a haven, a place for contemplation, a respite from the the ordinary.  In younger days it was the Cascade Range, with its volcanic edifices atop a basement of older plutons and metamorphic rocks.  Then later the volcanic landscapes of the Oregon Cascades, the stacked metasedimentary rocks of the Canadian Rockies, the Overthrust Belt of western Wyoming. and the remote reaches of Alaska’s Brooks Range.  It is relatively recently I discovered the varied mountains of California, including the starkly beautiful ridges and valleys in the Transverse Range and Santa Monica Mountains.

The granite landscape of the Sierra Nevada draws me in.  At first glance, the rocks are uniform.  Taking the time to really look one starts to see subtle differences in texture, color, and how they respond to weathering.  A background in geology definitely helps in seeing diversity in a seemingly endless gray-white landscape.  Climbers have a better sense of the geology than the casual observer as their life may depend on their ability to “read the rocks.”

Yosemite always beckons.  For the first time in over a year, I heeded the call.


Cathedral Peak and Upper Cathedral Lake from Cathedral Pass

Even in fall the Cathedral Lakes trail has upwards of a hundred people following Muir’s admonishment.  The trail to the lakes, and above to Cathedral Pass cross the Cathedral Peak Granite, a marvelous rock with very large megacrysts of the mineral orthoclase, a potassium-rich feldspar.  These crystals are pervasive in the rock, with many areas where you find large masses of these 2- to 4-inch crystals.  The orthoclase is more resistant to weathering than the surrounding smaller crystals, forming knobby surfaces.  Glacially polished surfaces show no preference for orthoclase or groundmass, they both polish up equally well.


Weathered Cathedral Peak Granite with knobby orthoclase megacrysts


Glacial polished Cathedral Peak Granite

When hiking the trails of Yosemite, one is never alone.  Which made a hike to Mono Pass, then onward to Parker Pass all the more notable.  It was a solitary hike, with only the rocks, stunted trees in the high country, raucous Clark’s Nutcrackers, and the wind for company.  It was not until the last hour of the hike, on the way back to the trailhead, when I encountered another hiker, then saw five other people within the space of a half mile.

The hike to Mono and Parker Passes takes one into the country rock which surrounded the granite masses when they were intruded.  Dark, gray and red, these rocks are metamorphosed sedimentary and volcanic rocks far older than the granites.  At times it was easy to see the contact zone between the two types of rocks, which provides a sense of some of the dynamics that took place when the granites were intruded.  The metamorphic rocks are more easily weathered, and tend to break down into smaller fragments, which results in less craggy peaks compared to those of granite.


Mono Pass with Mono Lake in the distance


The flat expanse of Parker Pass, elevation 11,100 feet ASL


Spillway Lake at the base of the Kuna Crest; note the contrast between the dark metamorphic rocks just above the lake, and the lighter Kuna Crest Granodiorite of the ridgetop


Metamorphic rock pavement on the divide between Mono and Parker Passes

These excursions into the back country reveal the depths of time.  The story of mountain building in this part of the world starts with ancient rocks which had their origins undersea and were subsequently altered through the action of heat and pressure, the emplacement of granite at a time when dinosaurs roamed a good part of the Earth, and culminates with the recent uplift associated with the formation of the basin and range province covering much of Nevada.

It is the much more recent tearing away at these mountains that created the allure drawing millions to Yosemite each year.  The evidence is everywhere: from the can’t miss vertical cliffs and bare granite domes, the hanging valleys with cascading waters, to the subtle ridges of moraines left behind when glaciers retreated, and the polished rock surfaces.  Weathering and erosion have left their mark on the land.

The tidings of the mountains are the very story of the Earth itself, nature’s source for the tale of deep time.  It is there for all to read and hear, one just has to slow down to look and listen.

Panorama looking northwest from Parker Pass

Panorama looking northwest from Parker Pass

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Learning to See

This past August, I had eye surgery, an event giving me a renewed appreciation for what our brains are capable of, and their elasticity in accommodating and assimilating sensory input as well as ideas. My recovery reminded me of the film shown in many classes in the 1960s, where a researcher wore a set of glasses that caused the world to appear upside down. Within a few days, the researcher’s brain inverted the image and the world once again appeared right side up. A couple of days later the glasses came off, and everything again was upside down, and eventually the researcher again perceived the world as before the experiment. It takes babies several weeks for their brains to learn how to fuse the inputs from each eye into a single image.

In my case, a defect in my eye muscles caused them to not work properly, creating a misalignment of my eyes. The misalignment was great enough that my brain couldn’t compensate for the difference, resulting in some double vision. Minor surgery was successful at correcting my muscular imbalance, aligning my eyes so my brain is able to fuse the input from both eyes into a single image. But the fusing of these images following surgery was not instantaneous, and took several weeks for my brain to relearn how to see and completely restore my singular perception of the world. As with babies, the ability to track moving objects took longer to redevelop.

The restoration of my sight is somewhat analogous to what educators do when confronted with a learner’s lack of understanding, and perhaps misconception of scientific principles and/or natural phenomena.

An in depth understanding, and ability to thoroughly explain phenomena requires time and multiple opportunities to practice, with sustained contact with the concept over many days if not weeks. As with any learner, effective teacher professional development related to natural phenomena should include reinforcement over time.

In the case of solar and lunar eclipses, one could show someone a diagram and explain the phenomena in words, which a learner could, in all likelihood recite verbatim back to the explainer. However, really owning the concept through cognitive accommodation and assimilation takes time and an awareness of a suite of background concepts and phenomena including: Earth’s (and the Moon’s) rotation and revolution, and their relationship to how time is measured; shadows and light, particularly the kind of shadow cast by a spherical object illuminated by a single, point source; the measurement of angular size; size and distance scale of the Earth and Moon; the frequency and pattern of lunar phases; and the frequency and pattern of lunar and solar eclipses, and their relationship to lunar phases. The learning of any one aspect of eclipse phenomena is akin to keeping one eye closed when looking at a distant object. The depth of understanding is lost, much as binocular vision is necessary for visual depth perception. A misconception, such as lunar phases are the Moon passing into Earth’s shadow, or the Moon really is larger when it rises is similar to having both eyes open but with each eye gazing in a slightly different direction. The brain may pay greater attention to one image while relegating the other as an annoyance safely ignored. Unfortunately, many misconceptions offer a stronger, and perhaps more intuitive appeal, until the learner is confronted with evidence with which to dispel the misconception. It is in the fusing of all the experiences where in-depth learning and integration of a concept takes place.

As mentioned in previous Education Matters columns, the Next Generation Science Standards have provided a marvelous framework for engaging learners in the sorts of in-depth investigations necessary for fully understanding eclipses. Through the use of a storyline approach, educators can actively engage learners in each of the essential background concepts mentioned above. Using resources developed for ASP programs the Night Sky Network, Project ASTRO, and Astronomy from the Ground Up, ASP staff have created such a storyline and are using it in workshops to help educators prepare for next year.

The total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 is a teachable moment without compare. Taking place mid-day, on a day when many schools throughout the country are in session, it is an opportunity for educators, in and out of the classroom, to engage learners of all ages in experiences with both eyes open, both literally and metaphorically, promoting a full understanding of a phenomena that has caused wonder and bafflement for millennia.

This post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the fall 2016 issue of the ASP’s Mercury magazine.

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It’s Elementary

Recently, The National Academies Press published Science Teachers’ Learning (NAP, 2015), a report on the current state of science teacher preparation, along with recommendations for approaching how and when teachers engage in professional development, and the necessary changes to education policy influencing those opportunities. I became aware of this new resource at the 2016 NSTA National Conference on Science Education in Nashville, Tennessee, when Dr. Julie Luft, a member of the committee that worked on the report, gave a presentation to a joint meeting of the National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA) and the Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE). In her talk, Dr. Luft presented some sobering, but not surprising, statistics from the report: during a three year period, 41% of elementary teachers participated in no science related professional development (PD). And only 12% participated in the equivalent of one day of science related PD during the same three-year period. This is in stark contrast to the 18% of middle school, and 15% of high school teachers who did not engage in science related PD. 47% of middle school science teachers, and 57% of those in high school participated in at least one day of science PD per year during the same time.

Elementary teachers are particularly challenged compared to their secondary colleagues due in large part to their teaching multiple subjects, particularly math and language arts, which are emphasized due to their prominence in the high-stakes testing that has influenced education policies since the implementation of No Child Left Behind. As a result of these policies, studies cited in the NAP report indicate only 19% of K-2 classrooms, and 30% of those in grades 3-5 receive science instruction on a daily basis. When science is offered, it only accounts for an average of 19 minutes per day in grades K-3, compared to 54 minutes for math, and 89 minutes per day in language arts. Grade 4-6 classes show a slight increase to 24 minutes per day for science instruction. These short time spans for science results in learners making few connections between the instruction and developing a rudimentary understanding of basic scientific concepts. Even in classrooms where science takes a greater role, elementary teachers are generally unprepared to develop learning opportunities for their students, let alone implement them. While teaching basic scientific concepts requires a different skill set and knowledge base than that required for engaging in scientific research, few teacher preparation programs provide adequate opportunities for acquiring the relevant pedagogical content knowledge. Only 5% of elementary teachers majored in a science-related field, about the same as the 6% who took no college science courses.

As noted in previous Education Matters columns, from time to time I visit science methods classes in teacher preparation programs at local universities. I also have interacted with inservice elementary teachers during teacher resource fairs, and professional development workshops delivered at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. While many of the elementary teachers I come in contact with have a relatively sophisticated understanding of science, a large number of the early elementary teachers I have spoken with demonstrate the opposite. One first grade teacher in particular described how he incorporated the scientific method in activities, with students conducting controlled experiments. During our conversation, we discussed how the scientific method is a myth, and how there are a great many ways of doing science. Much of biology, as well as earth and space science do not conduct controlled experiments, and rely on observation, prediction, and modeling to arrive at conclusions. A more developmentally appropriate approach for engaging a first grader involves emphasizing questioning, and making observations to recognize and describe patterns. The ability to control variables is cognitively available for somewhat older learners.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NAP, 2011), and the subsequent Next Generation Science Standards (NAP, 2013), set the stage for significant changes in how teachers, including those at the elementary level, will approach their curricular and instructional decisions. Teacher preparation programs, as well as professional development providers (including the Astroteacher and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific) are in the process of redeveloping their offerings to reflect these changes. The emphasis on student engagement in the practices of science, and reasoning from evidence requires a better understanding on the part of implementing teachers of both the core ideas and concepts of science, and their application during active investigations through the use of the practices. The implication of the report, and efforts to fully implement the philosophy laid out in the Framework, is the dearth of science instruction in elementary grades must, and will increase. To accomplish this, the frequency and quality of teacher learning must also change.

Note: This post originally appeared as the Summer 2016 Education Matters column in the ASP published Mercury magazine.  The author serves as the Region F Director for the National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA).

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