The COVID-19 pandemic has changed most everyone’s behavior. Particularly when it comes to personal protection. Unfortunately, people are generally inconsistent in their practice of safe behavior to limit the spread of the coronavirus. On my regular walks around San Francisco, I would guess about two thirds of fellow walkers are using masks. Some wearers appear to have theirs on continuously, and others, including myself, replace them over our nose and mouth when approaching another. Many who do not wear masks, also make little effort to increase the distance between themselves and others upon close approach. Bicyclists, for the most part, are fairly good at wearing a mask, perhaps around two thirds of them. Runners, however, are relatively poor at wearing a mask, with maybe only about 20% of them wearing one.


One aspect of wearing a mask is what to do with it when you take it off. I probably now have around ten washable, fabric masks, which I reuse. Most of them have a pocket into which I place one of the commercial three-ply masks to increase their effectiveness. Those too are reusable, and stand up to light rinsing.

Many people, however, do not reuse their masks. Nor have they made an effort to dispose of them properly.  The prevalence of discarded masks in the environment is common to a diversity of neighborhoods, the most upscale, and those which struggle.

On some recent walks, I photographed upwards of 70-80 different masks I encountered along the streets and paths of San Francisco

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Chasing Shadows and Eating the Moon

Several years ago, a speaker told the audience at a conference I was attending how elementary teachers have very few opportunities for professional development in the area of science, and take advantage of fewer.  The amount of professional development in my area of earth and space science is fairly minimal.  In an effort to try and rectify this lack, I proposed a program to connect literacy with science content.  Eventually, we included a field trip to a planetarium in the proposal to the DRK-12 division of NSF, and Project PLANET was born.

The 2020 STEM for All Video Showcase includes a three-minute video about our Project PLANET program at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.  The two-year NSF-funded exploratory project is looking at integrated instructional sequences for 1st and 3rd grade classrooms.

With our partners at West Chester University (West Chester, PA), the Lawrence Hall of Science (Univ. of California at Berkeley), and Rockman et al, we are working with a cohort of 1st and 3rd grade teachers to develop coherent instructional sequences including a visit to a planetarium. The sequences involve investigating the natural phenomena of shadows and the motion of the Sun (1st grade), and lunar phases (3rd grade). The planetarium and classroom activities mutually support each other, providing context and instructional rationale for the field trip, and are expected to lead to learners engaging in appropriate science practices (e.g., noticing, recognizing change, making predictions).  The part of the sequence holding everything together is the storybook.  The use of narrative to initially engage learners, then to some extent guide them through their investigations, was a valuable anchor point for them throughout the sequence.  At the end, learners were able to create their own stories, cementing the experience into the narrative of their own lives.

While it may not have fulfilled the goal of providing more professional development to early elementary teachers in earth and space science, it is lending credence to how an integrated instructional sequence can engage learners.  What we are learning is making its way into the professional development we conduct, and teachers are responding positively.

Follow the link below to view the video.

Chasing Shadows and Eating the Moon


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Seeing the Night Sky is a Basic Human Right

Several years ago, there was an effort in a number of communities to codify a “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights.” These documents remain as guides for the development of activities in both the classroom, and out of school time venues. In San Francisco, the San Francisco Parks and Recreation, as well as San Francisco Unified School District, adopted this document in recognition that “direct exposure to nature is a necessary component of a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing, and cognitive development.”  

The Bill of Rights lists a number of activities children should have access to:

  • Explore all wild places in the City;
  • Harvest and eat a fruit or vegetable;
  • Plant a seed and watch it grow;
  • Visit and care for a local park;
  • Splash in the ocean or a bay;
  • Play in the sand and mud;
  • Discover urban wildlife;
  • Sleep under the stars;
  • Climb a tree; and
  • Ride a bike.

Astronomy educators certainly welcome the recognition of the ability to “sleep under the stars” as a right every child should have. As such, it might make more sense to us to say children have the right to see more than the brightest stars and planets. What about the right to view the Milky Way as it stretches across the sky?


Most of the communities adopting the Outdoor Bill of Rights are urban areas, where the night skies are often degraded due to the overwhelming amount of light human activities create. In my own neighborhood, with hills screening my view of the core area of downtown San Francisco, a recently renovated park has banks of lights to illuminate a set of soccer fields. On nights when fog is not present, only a few of the brightest stars in the more prominent constellations are viewable after the lights are turned off at 10 p.m. The Milky Way, the variety of Messier objects, comets, and even meteor showers still elude me even on the darkest nights in the city.

About the same time as the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights was first created, the Starlight Declaration was made. The first of several declarations said: “An unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right equivalent to all other socio-cultural and environmental rights. Hence the progressive degradation of the night sky must be regarded as a fundamental loss.”

A number of educational programs have served to inform the general population about issues related to the loss of the night sky. These include activities teachers can use in their classrooms to investigate issues related to lighting, and the ability to observe the night sky. In particular, Globe at Night allows students to upload their observations into a worldwide database, where they can look to see which areas have the darkest skies, as well as those with the brightest.

It is true many people enjoy seeing the passage of satellites in the night sky. But in this modern era, too many satellites are cause for serious concern.

Many budding engineers and other contributors to the space program, as well as astronomers, have credited their sight of Sputnik crossing the sky as an inspiration for their career paths. In the present day, the International Space Station in particular thrills people as they gaze in wonder at the speck of light carrying humans 254 miles above them.

However, the past year has seen the professional astronomy community raise their voices in concern over SpaceX’s Starlink project. As dozens of these satellites are released, they have formed bright trains, interfering with imagery from many ground-based telescopes. As their orbits mature, they will disperse, forming constellations of their own. The sheer number of satellites the project, and others like it, will eventually release promises to introduce the potential for thousands of extra points of light in the night sky. At this time the final impact after full deployment is unknown. It is possible the satellites will only impact viewing in the hours close to sunset and sunrise. Their final brightness is also uncertain.


19 Starlink satellite trails appear in this image from the 4-meter Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Image: DELVE Survey / CTIO / AURA / NSF

What is certain, is the times when people are most likely to notice the satellites is also the time when school children are most likely to turn their faces up to see the sky. What will they see, the static constellations of the distant stars, or the moving ones of a myriad of satellites? If we are to take the ability to view the night sky without artificial interference as a basic human right, what do we say to our children who ask us what it was like to see the stars?


An ecumenopolis, a planet-wide city. Image: Max / CC BY-SA (

Many science fiction stories have contained a planet-wide ecumenopolis. In these planet-cities, the natural sky is unavailable to the citizenry. They adopted technology at the expense of experiencing the natural universe, closing off the people from the ability to look up with the potential for wonder and inspiration. The goal of bringing the internet to the world through a global network of satellites is laudable.

However, one has to wonder if in accomplishing that goal we lose at least a little of what makes us human.

A version of this post originally appeared in the Education Matters column in the Winter 2020 issue of Mercury magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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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.


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.


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.

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