Cultural perspective governs our approach to nature

As a tool for artists, perspective made its appearance consistently sometime in the early 1400s.  It was not long before both linear and aerial perspective were utilized, giving depth and dimension to the scene, providing a more realistic view of the world.  For many years I have pondered the relationship of art to science, and cultural change in general.  Is it art that drives change within culture, or are the artists merely reflecting new ways of thinking and giving them manifestation?  As scientists, it seems we would like to have science drive the changes in perception, however I suspect it is the artists who are leading us towards a more realistic way of seeing nature.  Of course, this may break down with the modern abstract and minimalist schools of art.  Though the roots of these predated the now pervasive quantum physics, and its emphasis on probability, and uncertainty.  So, perhaps the artists were a step ahead, preparing our perception for the coming change in scientific paradigms.

Teaching and learning are cultural processes.  As such, they do not express themselves the same way in every society.  Just as individual artists have different ways of expressing themselves, so too do cultures.  Many times, this is evident within individual classrooms, as learners from diverse backgrounds bring with them different ways of knowing, and responding, not only to the culture in which they find themselves, but also to the natural world they are studying in science courses.  At times it is difficult as educators to recognize and respect the differences, particularly because we tend to give preference to a rigid idea of what it means to learn science.  As with the rest of our society, our western European roots are well established in not just the science we engage in, but also in how we teach, and learn in the formal classroom.

Many students, particularly those from indigenous cultures, have a different approach to nature.  While students brought up in a western European style culture take a taxonomic approach focusing on the properties of individual parts, learners from indigenous cultures take a more nuanced approach, emphasizing relationships within systems.  Cultures taking a relational approach to nature also tend to have a rich history of storytelling, bringing together different aspects of nature to create a coherent narrative.

In some ways, these two approaches to nature are at the heart of every interaction and controversy having to do with conservation of natural resources.  In these cases, the approaches are manifested in a tension between seeing nature as transactional versus relational.  The transactional approach to nature is rooted in the viewpoint it is there for humans to make use of, to always think of the value we extract from either the place itself or the underlying resources. The relational approach recognizes deep connections to nature, with humans intimately connected to the Earth and the other lifeforms who also call it home.  History is rife with the tension between these two viewpoints, with many members of the dominant western European culture crossing over to advocate for the more nuanced, relational approach to nature, resulting in legislation such as the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, the Antiquities Act, and others.  Of particular note are those who advocate the most strongly for the transactional viewpoint continue to fight for the exclusion, and rescission of any protections placed on land and species in an effort to add them to the inventory of places available for resource extraction.

In so many ways there is little difference between the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park, Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, Bears Ears in Utah, Standing Rock,  the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Tongass National Forest, and the summit of Mauna Kea.  In every instance, not only is there a tension between a transactional vs. relational approach to the land, but there is also one between the dominant western European, and an indigenous culture.

For an educator, providing a transformational experience for learners focused on relationships within systems can create a greater awareness of perspective than when focusing on individual elements.  Many times such an experience requires a slowing down, to decrease the sensory load, allowing nuances to emerge of how component parts interact in relationship.  The creation or appreciation of art can provide such an experience, and park rangers in their interpretive practice do this on a regular basis as they tap into visitors’ affective realm.  While a seemingly ordinary venue may provide such an experience, many times it is in the most spectacular places where we feel closest to nature.  Indigenous peoples certainly recognized how some places evoke a greater feeling of relationship and perspective than others.  Once such a place is gone, it is no consolation to point to it as an object lesson of what could have been.

Slowing down, one might sense the interconnectivity within a forest, or observe the sophisticated dynamics within groups of communal animals.  To truly see the night sky may require stepping away from the eyepiece, taking in the depth of the vistas before you.  We just might discover the truth John Muir knew: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

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A version of this post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the Fall 2019 edition of Mercury magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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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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