A Teachable Moment?

This past April, while attending the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference in St. Louis, Missouri, a friend came up to me and asked what I thought of the image of the black hole.  My reply: “what black hole?” The image, and story of how it was created, had just appeared, and it was creating quite a buzz in the education community. It wasn’t until a couple of days later when I finally had a chance to read about the image, and how they used a network of radiotelescopes to resolve the image with an instrument with an effective diameter of the Earth itself.

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Radio image of the black hole in Messier 87. Image: ESA

The subject of astronomical phenomena, and how they are utilized in classroom instruction is not a new topic in this blog.  For the past several years I have pondered the usefulness of images such as the one of the black hole as an investigatable phenomenon for students.  One of the challenges with the image of the black hole for learners is the lack of any identifiable phenomena with which they are familiar, giving them a basis for forming questions about the phenomenon in the image, giving direction for any subsequent investigations.  Contrast this with the image below, where there are many phenomena displayed, most of which are subject to student questioning.

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Portage Lake, Alaska

When queried about the difficulty with astronomical content and images during the NSTA conference, an expert on the use of phenomena in classroom instruction replied that many times earth and space science activities start with the model and not student engagement with the phenomenon.  Discussions with other experts suggested the difficulty is not so much with the astronomical phenomena, as it is in the inability to engage learners in more active science practices where they gather evidence, reason about the evidence, and use the evidence to support their explanation of a phenomenon.  The image of the black hole is a prime example of this quandary: a black hole is an inherently interesting object, but what are learners supposed to do with it? What evidence is there in the image they can engage with? A black hole is a model to explain phenomena which is either observable or predicted, none of which is evident in the image itself.

A similar difficulty lies with the gravity waves the LIGO detectors discovered, and their interpretation as coming from colliding black holes and/or neutron stars.  LIGO really was built for one purpose only, to confirm a theoretical model.

In some ways the real phenomena available for students to investigate is how they were able to obtain the image, or detect the gravity waves.  In this sense, the image itself and the LIGO data ARE the phenomena, and learners can investigate how to detect very faint waves, and very distant objects.  In the case of the black hole image, this would allow learners to delve into telescopic resolution, contrasting it with magnification. Knowing an array of widely spaced instruments were necessary to resolve the black hole, they could investigate the basics of optical systems, and how increasing the aperture results in greater resolution.  This would also result in the application of engineering design practices as outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The NGSS, and the Framework on which they are built, do not provide details on how teachers construct their curriculum and daily instruction.  Until recently, it was left to the developers and writers of the standards, and those who were involved in research into their implications, to describe the pedagogy teachers could use that is consistent with the three dimensions in the standards.  The National Academies of Science recently published a new volume which helps fill this need: Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center (NAP, 2019).  This new volume describes in detail the centrality of phenomena to classroom instruction, and will, in the coming months as educators have a chance to digest its information, inform both classroom instruction, and the professional development necessary to support them.

This is an exciting time for astronomy, and educators, as we continue to find innovative ways to bring the wonders of the universe into the classroom. It is not always what we might expect, and sometimes those wonders are not so easy to translate into teachable moments.

This post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the Spring 2019 edition of Mercury magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

This entry was posted in Astronomy, Education Matters, Science Education, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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