Addressing the current deficiencies will require that teachers be engaged to improve the science attainment of U.S. students and also that research scientists find new ways to make the science enterprise more accessible and inviting to young people. Because of its broad public appeal and its many ties to other branches of science and technology, astronomy can contribute in uniquely powerful ways. Public interest in astronomy translates to opportunities to educate and influence future scientists, engineers, teachers, policy makers, and the public at large, through informal education or formally, in the classroom. Also relevant to enhancing understanding of science are the connections that astrophysical research has today with many other areas of STEM: geology (planets), aerospace engineering (space missions), biology (the search for life in the cosmos), chemistry (molecules in the interstellar medium), high-performance computing (data management and computational astrophysics), mechanical engineering (innovative design of telescopes and observatories), electrical engineering and advanced optics (sensor physics and adaptive optics), computer science (massive data sets and analysis), nuclear physics (matter at ultra-high density), particle physics (the study of the big bang and cosmic origins, dark matter), and even medicine (many of the most sensitive and therefore least invasive cameras for examining the body contain detectors originally developed for astronomy, and adaptive optics tools for high-resolution imaging developed for astronomy are now being applied to ultra-precise imaging of the living human retina).
The engagement of astronomers in education at the K-12 and college levels is considerable. Undergraduate astronomy courses in colleges and universities serve 250,000 students annually, representing about 10 percent of all undergraduates nationwide. Among them are about 15 percent of future K-12 teachers, for whom introductory astronomy is often their only science course.12
Astronomy education itself is now recognized as an important area of research, and education specialists (Ph.D.-holding astronomers with additional education degrees and credentials) are being hired in major research university departments, as well as in smaller teaching-oriented college physics and astronomy departments, to develop and test new approaches to teaching that break down conceptual barriers to understanding. A result of this focus on learning has been a steady increase in interactive teaching, which produces measurable learning gains over traditional lecture course formats.