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.
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.