5
Education and Public Outreach

Astronomy has a special appeal to the public by virtue of the richness of its images, the exotic environments in which it plays out, and the fundamental questions it asks about cosmic origins. No doubt, the generous public support for NASA’s astronomy research stems largely from astronomers’ success in making the fruits of their research accessible and appealing to many people. Moreover, astronomy attracts many young people into careers in science. Astronomers have a responsibility to continue these efforts and especially to help improve science education in the nation’s schools.

Astronomical observations can illustrate universal concepts—such as how scientists interpret inherently uncertain or noisy data or why it is useful to observe a phenomenon at multiple wavelengths—which are fundamental to scientific literacy. Recognizing this value, NASA has mandated that science centers support programs in education and public outreach (EPO), and every NASA astronomy science center has responded to this mandate.

PUBLIC OUTREACH

The most visible products of the EPO efforts at the science centers are their Web sites:

Each Web site is rich with press releases, images, and animations illustrating and describing cosmic sources seen in several wavelength bands. These sites also provide educational resources intended for use by teachers and students, and they may even engage and motivate students enough to pursue careers in science.

In addition to the Web sites, these NASA astronomy science centers, especially those for the flag-



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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers 5 Education and Public Outreach Astronomy has a special appeal to the public by virtue of the richness of its images, the exotic environments in which it plays out, and the fundamental questions it asks about cosmic origins. No doubt, the generous public support for NASA’s astronomy research stems largely from astronomers’ success in making the fruits of their research accessible and appealing to many people. Moreover, astronomy attracts many young people into careers in science. Astronomers have a responsibility to continue these efforts and especially to help improve science education in the nation’s schools. Astronomical observations can illustrate universal concepts—such as how scientists interpret inherently uncertain or noisy data or why it is useful to observe a phenomenon at multiple wavelengths—which are fundamental to scientific literacy. Recognizing this value, NASA has mandated that science centers support programs in education and public outreach (EPO), and every NASA astronomy science center has responded to this mandate. PUBLIC OUTREACH The most visible products of the EPO efforts at the science centers are their Web sites: The High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC) of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), http://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/outreach.html; The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), http://www.stsci.edu/outreach/; The Chandra X-ray Center (CXC), http://chandra.harvard.edu/pub.html; and The Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), http://coolcosmos.ipac.caltech.edu/. Each Web site is rich with press releases, images, and animations illustrating and describing cosmic sources seen in several wavelength bands. These sites also provide educational resources intended for use by teachers and students, and they may even engage and motivate students enough to pursue careers in science. In addition to the Web sites, these NASA astronomy science centers, especially those for the flag-

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers ship missions, support other public outreach efforts. They provide information to museums and print and broadcast media and distribute popular materials such as posters, postcards, and stickers that serve an EPO function. STScI, CXC, and IPAC also administer programs that provide supplemental grants to enable scientists using their facilities to develop EPO resources. These grants enable university scientists and NASA astronomy science center staff to coordinate their outreach efforts to students and the public. In fact, the EPO groups at the science centers include active research scientists and routinely consult with other scientists at the centers and with guest investigators to develop press releases and scientific information for the public. Finding: A close coupling between a science center’s research scientists and its EPO effort is a hallmark of a successful science center EPO program. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has developed an EPO Web site (http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm) devoted to the quest for extrasolar planets, by ground-based observatories and by existing and proposed space missions such as Spitzer, Kepler, the Space Interferometry Mission, and the Terrestrial Planet Finder. Several smaller missions have their own EPO Web sites, such as those for the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/) and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (http://www.galex.caltech.edu/index.html). HEASARC has delegated responsibility to Sonoma State University to develop EPO programs for the Swift (http://swift.sonoma.edu/) and Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (http://www-glast.sonoma.edu/) missions. Images and press releases provided by the science centers appear frequently on the front pages of major national newspapers and magazines and in almost every physical science textbook. The Web sites are among the most frequently visited scientific sites on the Web. For example, the Astronomy Picture of the Day (http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html), supported jointly by NASA GSFC and the National Science Foundation (NSF), is one of the most popular Web sites in all of science, with more than 600,000 page visits per day. These EPO programs have greatly increased the public’s appreciation and understanding of NASA’s efforts in space astronomy. Finding: The public outreach efforts of the astronomy science centers have a major national impact. During its data gathering, the committee learned that NASA Headquarter’s approval process for EPO products is adding time and expense to NASA astronomy science center public outreach efforts. The committee believes that the science centers have sufficient expertise and competence to vet their own education and public outreach products. K-12 EDUCATION In its recent report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century listed four priority recommendations for ensuring American competitiveness, the first of which was to “increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education.”1 Specific strategies to achieve this goal included funding summer institutes to 1 National Research Council, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, p. 5.

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers support up to 50,000 teachers each year “to keep current with recent developments in science, mathematics, and technology and allow for the exchange of best teaching practices”2 and to develop “K-12 curriculum materials modeled on a world-class standard.”3 The science centers can and should make a significant contribution to this strategy. There is no bright line between public outreach and education. All the public outreach resources provided by the astronomy science centers have educational value. Teachers reported to the committee that they use these resources to augment classroom lessons, and many students explore the Web sites to find materials for essays and term papers and often for the sheer joy of learning. In fact, science center Web sites, perhaps more than science lessons,4 can motivate students to pursue careers in science. The astronomy science centers already provide resources specifically intended for K-12 school teachers. For example, they conduct teacher workshops, support programs for teachers and students to visit the centers, and post lesson plans on their Web sites. In some cases, the centers actually provide observing time on spacecraft for teachers and their students; an example is the observing time provided in the science education workshop for teacher leaders jointly sponsored by the National Optical Astronomy Observatories and the Spitzer Science Center (http://www.noao.edu/outreach/tlrbse/). Despite these efforts, the troves of scientific information provided by the EPO programs of the science centers have not found their way into lesson plans or student activities in most K-12 classrooms. Why is this so? Educators interviewed by the committee suggested that most teachers simply do not have the time to develop lesson plans ab initio. To introduce new material, teachers need lesson plans that Are easy to find; Have been designed iteratively through field testing and evaluation in actual classrooms; Include student-centered hands-on activities; Can be completed in a limited time period; Work well with standard curricula at appropriate grade levels; Have clearly defined learning goals that meet state and national standards; and Come packaged with protocols for measuring learning effectiveness. Most important, these lesson plans must be embedded in an infrastructure that supports teachers, including Web-based teacher guides and workshops for training teachers. Individual science centers do not have the personnel or resources to carry out ambitious programs in curriculum development. However, they could have a much greater impact on K-12 education. They could, for example, establish strategic collaborations with each other and with other organizations having experience in developing curriculum materials and in-service teacher training. Teachers will find it much easier to adopt curriculum resources related to NASA astronomy missions if these resources all have the same look and feel. Moreover, some of the most important scientific insights that students can gain come from comparing what we see from space and from the ground. Through such comparisons, students can understand much better the limitations imposed by atmospheric transmission, angular resolution, and signal/noise. They will also see that we can learn much more about the universe by observing its constituents in several wavelength bands rather than just a single band. Moreover, by partnering with existing organizations having experience in providing professional development for in-service teachers, the science centers can reach far more teachers than they can on 2 Ibid, p. 5. 3 Ibid, p. 6. 4 Weiss et al., 2003, Looking Inside the Classroom: A Study of K-12 Mathematics and Science Education in the United States. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Horizon Research, Inc.

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers their own. We have already witnessed a successful example of such leverage in the partnership of the Spitzer Science Center with the ongoing Teacher Leaders in Research Based Science Education program. This program, sponsored by the NSF through the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, reaches the formal education community through a national audience of well-trained and -supported middle and high school teachers. NASA and the NSF have defined their roles such that space-based astronomy research is the province of NASA, while ground-based (primarily optical and radio) astronomy research is the province of NSF. But maintaining this distinction is counterproductive when it comes to K-12 education. In fact, some of the greatest opportunities for the science centers to increase their impact on K-12 education come from partnerships with the NSF. For example, the National Virtual Observatory (NVO), at http://www.virtualobservatory.org/, is a major NSF-supported project to develop a set of online tools to link all the world’s astronomy data. The NVO, with several partners, is developing tools and resources for students to explore and analyze astronomical data from many different instruments, at all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio to gamma rays. Likewise, other projects supported by the NSF and other organizations, such as the Hands-on Universe (HOU) project5 (http://www.handsonuniverse.org/) of the Lawrence Hall of Science, Project CLEA6 (http://www.gettysburg.edu/academics/physics/clea/CLEAhome.html) at Gettysburg College, and the Digital Universe Atlas at the American Museum of Natural History7 (http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/hp/vo/du/) provide venues for the science centers to leverage their efforts in K-12 education. Finding: Astronomy science centers have developed valuable resources for K-12 education, but developing a coherent strategy that can have a greater educational impact remains a major challenge. 5 HOU allows students to request observations from an automated telescope, download the images from an archive, and analyze the images using provided software. HOU is run by University of California, Berkeley. 6 Contemporary Laboratory Experiences in Astronomy (CLEA) provides high school and college students the opportunity to practice modern astronomical techniques in the laboratory using dedicated software programs. CLEA is supported by Gettysburg College and the NSF. 7 The Digital Universe Atlas is run by Hayden Planetarium with significant support from NASA. The Atlas allows for casual browsing and navigation around a highly detailed three-dimensional map of the universe via a free software download.