Astronomy and space science in the STEM classroom

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Image: Shutterstock/Alphaspirit

Astronomy is one of the most exciting and rapidly evolving branches of science. Historically, not only scientists and students, but the general public has been very much interested in the achievements and advances of this science. Students are fascinated to understand different astronomy topics, such as the sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon, the changing seasons, the appearance of comets, eclipses of the Sun and Moon, the motion of planets in the starry sky.

Astronomy has influenced our history and culture through its practical applications as well as through its philosophical and religious implications. Our calendars have an astronomical basis. Many cultures (including ours) have written their mythology in the sky. Astronomy still has practical applications for timekeeping; calendars; daily, seasonal, and long-term changes in climate; and navigation [1].

Just as an example,Calendars, mirrors the sky and cultures” is a project in the Scientix repository that studies, through the topic of calendars, the measurement of time and its history and impact on past and present societies, while discovering different astronomy methodologies. Pupils study the Sun’s path in the sky, the cycles of day and night, the seasons and phases of the Moon…all the phenomena that punctuates and shapes our daily lives. The study of Gregorian, Muslim, Hebrew and Chinese calendars… as well as those of the ancient Mayans, Gauls, Romans and the French Revolution, are used to firmly link astronomy to the heart of history and cultures. http://www.fondation-lamap.org/calendriers

As Henri Poincaré said, “Astronomy is useful…because it shows how small our bodies, how large our minds.” We understand the origin and evolution of our sun and our planet by studying the origin and evolution of stars and planets elsewhere. In fact, most of the elements in our bodies were synthesized in the stars. Our star is one within hundreds of billions in our galaxy, which is only one of billions of galaxies in the universe [1].

Benefits of teaching and learning astronomy

  • Astronomy can be used for interdisciplinary courses in science. For instance, many physics concepts are used (gravitation and relativity, light and spectra) in the study of astronomy. Also, a geography course can provide obvious examples of comparative planetology. In fact, studying the basic motions of skies can help students apply math to the ancient craft of navigation and time-keeping (The history of mathematics is inextricably bound to the history of astronomical studies) [2].
  • Astronomy brings the scientific method in the classroom. Astronomers understand the universe by comparing its observed appearance with the predictions of theories or models; they cannot understand stellar life cycles, for instance, by breeding star. As pupils study the methods of astronomer, they get familiar with experimental and observational models in science that provides the scientific investigation [1].
  • Astronomy, unlike other sciences, can become a hobby. It is hard to turn biology, chemistry, or physics into casual hobbies. Astronomy, on the other hand, it can be studied nearly anywhere in the world without any technical equipment. Students could invest in star charts, good binoculars, or an amateur telescope [2].

Benefits of space science research

More than fifty years of human activity in space have produced societal benefits that improve the quality of life on Earth. The first satellites, designed to study the space environment and to test initial capabilities in the Earth’s orbit, contributed to the critical knowledge and capabilities for developing satellite telecommunications. The challenges of space exploration have sparked new scientific and technological knowledge of inherent value to humankind [3].

Space Science research seeks to increase our understanding of the solar system and the universe. The four major topics in Space Science are: The Astronomical Search for Origins, the Structure and Evolution of the Universe, the Solar System Exploration and the Sun-Earth connection. By studying stars and planets we learn about the Sun and our own planet, the Earth. It also helps us learn how stars, planets, and galaxies evolved and how the universe was formed. While students are learning about the exploration of space and study astronomy, they deal with big ideas of Science, as it follows:

  • There are four fundamental interactions/forces in nature: Gravitation, electromagnetism, strong-nuclear, and weak nuclear. All phenomena are due to the presence of one or more of these interactions. Forces act on objects and can act at a distance through a respective physical field causing a change in motion or in the state of matter.
  • The Earth is a very small part of the Universe: The universe is comprised of billions of galaxies, each of which contains billions of stars (suns) and other celestial objects. The Earth is a very small part of a solar system with our sun in its center that in turn is a very small part of the universe.
  • Big Ideas of Science are a set of cross-cutting scientific concepts that describe the world around us. They allow us to conceive the connection between different natural phenomena that at a first glance may look irrelevant but in fact have their roots on the same principles and laws of nature [4].
  • Earth and space sciences education is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Long perceived as a ‘minor’ science (in contrast with physics, chemistry and biology), Earth and space sciences is emerging in both public perception and active science research as a profoundly important field. Our lives and future depend on the depth of our understanding of our home planet. The concept of Earth as a rich and complex system of interconnected components and processes has become a dominant paradigm in science. Furthermore, the Space Age has provided a revolutionary new perspective on Earth, enabling us to see, explore and investigate our world in ways never before possible (National Conference on the Revolution in Earth and Space Science Education) [5].

The video The Benefits of Bringing Space to the Classroom features the British European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake, who talks about how the International Space Station can be used as an exciting context to talk about science and mathematics.

How space exploration help students learn about the Earth? Why space education is important?

  • Space exploration has given us new viewpoints What do you think we can learn about Earth from photographs taken from space? What can scientists understand from observations of the Moon and other bodies? What ideas inspired you the study of stars and planets?
  • Space exploration gives us evidence for Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth’s temperature allows liquid water to remain on the surface. Mars and Venus, the planets closest to Earth, has no liquid water on their surfaces. By comparing Earth with those planets, we can see how liquid water has affected the development of Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Satellite Views of Earth One of the most important benefits of space exploration has been the development of satellite technology. Satellites collect data from every region of our planet. For example, images and data from weather satellites have greatly improved weather forecasting.
  • Think critically about technology spin-offs It takes over a year for a spacecraft to reach Mars and return to Earth. If astronauts ever travel to Mars, they will need a spacecraft that can recycle air and water. How might such technology be adapted for use on Earth? [6]
  • Innovative practices in teaching astronomy and space science In many countries, astronomy and space science are not included as a subject in their curriculum. Also, it is known that there are many misconceptions in astronomy, that can be changed through education. For example:

-Why the seasons? Seasons are caused by Earth changing its distance from the Sun as it orbits the Sun.

-Asteroids everywhere: Flying through an asteroid field is fast and dangerous.

-No gravity on the Moon: Because gravity only exists on Earth.

-Fiery comets: They burn when near the Sun.

-Moon phases: They’re caused by the shadow of Earth.

Earth; rotation and revolution: The Earth is a perfect sphere.Latitude and longitude exist only at sea.

The Solar System: The Solar System is very crowded. The Solar System contains only the Sun, Moon, and planets. Meteors are falling stars.

-Stars and the Universe: The galaxy is very crowded. All stars are the same size.

If we are aware of the need for promoting teaching and learning astronomy and space science in STEM classrooms, we have to search for innovative practices and resources of inquiry based learning (IBL) scenarios.

Scientix repository :  

Projects

  • The ESERO-UK project aims to enhance and support STEM teaching and learning in the UK by using space as a context ( http://www.esero.org.uk/)
  • The European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) project is ESA’s main means of supporting the primary and secondary education community in Europe.
  • ARCturus: Astronomy Resource Center a free educational website to help in astronomy teaching in schools – encompasses lesson plans, materials, instructions and tools for learning about astronomy.
  • AstroEDU is an open access platform for peer-reviewed astronomy education activities. It helps teachers and educators to discover, review, distribute, and remix teaching and learning materials in astronomy ( http://astroedu.iau.org)

Teaching materials, lessons plans and scenarios in Learning Resources Exchange for Schools  

  • What Does Meteor Size Have to Do with Crater Size? This field investigation involves student dropping various objects into various mediums to find answers to questions that they propose, dealing with meteors and craters.
  • UniSchooLabS: DSpace Laboratory: The Endless Universe. This exercise aims to introduce the concept of varying galactic morphologies. It will use the DSpace service, a distributed network of science centres and robotic telescopes accessed online by students, educators, researchers and the general public.
  • UniSchooLabS: Planet Impact! In this interactive online activity, students investigate how the gravitational force of a large solar system body, such as Jupiter; can affect the path of a smaller body, such as a comet.
  • Astro-Origami. This resource introduces children to both geometry and analytical skills in a creative way. They have to use imaginative craft ideas to make stellar objects. They make rays with paper and they make a star by joining them.
  • Virtual laboratories activities for IBL in astronomy and space science. Teachers should reevaluate and redesign laboratory activities on a regular basis to maintain an emphasis on inquiry-based learning and real-world applications in teaching astronomy and space science. Students can examine scientific data and information and begin to design their own investigations as scientists, understand the interactions and relationships between the different systems of Earth, rather than view each unit independently, make scientific observations, offer and modify hypotheses and repeat their investigations to experience the thrill of discovery. This approach encourages students to develop a deeper knowledge of astronomy and space sciences.
  • Golab project  (http://www.golabz.eu/)
  • Craters on Earth and Other Planets. Students use the Impact Calculator lab to investigate what happens when a comet it hits the Earth. Through the investigation students get acquainted with the gravitational potential energy while they also practice with using mathematical formulas and making graphs. http://www.golabz.eu/spaces/craters-earth-and-other-planets
  • Galaxy classification and formation. Activity aims to introduce to students the concept of varying galactic morphologies. Students will look in detail at images of numerous galaxies derived from the ‘Faulkes telescopes’ and they will attempt to classify them according to their own notion and then according to the Hubble Classification Scheme. Moreover, the class will try to investigate the origin of the shapes of the galaxies that stem from galaxy interactions using the “Galaxy Crash’ simulation. http://www.golabz.eu/spaces/galaxy-classification-and-formation
  • Problem solving in astronomy and space science. Chang and Weng (2002) suggest that a significant correlation exists between students’ problem-solving ability and the science process skills in Earth and space sciences. The research indicates that learning increased measurably when students were educated in solving problems and then placed in situations requiring them to seek information, reflect on observations, and apply knowledge to new scenarios (Chiappetta, 1981) [5]. Assessment in problem-solving is a key component of the astronomy and space activities in IBL scenarios of Inspiring Science project (http://www.inspiringscience.eu/)
  • Stars and Energy Transport
  • Star & Planet Formation
  • Digging Into Comets
  • Gas Laws with Stars and Nebulae
  • The Big Bang
  • Electromagnetic Spectrum
  • Community of innovative practices in teaching astronomy and space science. This community brings together teachers who are using resources, virtual experiments and online labs from the fields of Astronomy. http://portal.opendiscoveryspace.eu/community/discover-cosmos-70530

Tools

http://portal.discoverthecosmos.eu/repository/tutorials/astro: Analysis of astronomical images / Classification of elliptical galaxies / Globular clusters and their ages / Open clusters / Estimating the mass and star formation rate in galaxies

Events

Workshops and training courses for professional development of STEM teachers. ESA is once again organising a training workshop for science teachers in association with the Galileo Teacher Training Programme (GTTP). The sixth in a series of training workshops, the ESA/GTTP Teacher Training Workshop will be held at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) (http://congrexprojects.com/2015-events/15c18)

References:

[1] Percy J., (2006) ‘Teaching Astronomy: Why and How’ ,Part 5, p.248- 254 , JAAVSO, Volume35 , https://www.aavso.org/media/jaavso/2386.pdf.

[2]Gilkerson L. , (2014) ‘10 Reasons to Teach Your Kids Astronomy’  

http://www.intoxicatedonlife.com/2014/07/31/reasons-teach-astronomy/

[3] International Space Exploration Coordination Group ISECG, ‘Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration’, 2013.

[4] http://www.golabz.eu/big-ideas.

[5] Ohio Instructional Management System (IMS), Department of Education (ODE), Research report: The Evidence Base for Science: Earth and Space.

http://ims.ode.state.oh.us/ode/ims/rrt/research/Content/earth_and_space_sciences_what_we_know.asp

[6] Space exploration benefits Society, Unit 6: Space Science, Chapter 19.4: Exploring Space p.695-698. http://www.classzone.com/science_book/mls_grade7_FL/695_698.pdf

[7] ‘Common Misconceptions about Astronomy’

http://www.scc.losrios.edu/pag/observatory/44-common-misconceptions-astronomy/

[8] Some Astronomical Misconceptions, http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/class/miscon.html

Article written by: Argyri Panagiota, Scientix Deputy Ambassador

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