Astronomy is the oldest science. For thousands of years, it has had a great influence on human perception of ourselves and our surroundings. Recently, astronomy and astrophysics have come to play a central role in the natural sciences, with many direct links to other sciences (e.g. many aspects of physics, mathematics, chemistry, the geo-sciences). They have an important cultural content including our distant origins, the recognition of the location and restricted extent of our niche in space and time, cosmological considerations as well as philosophy in general. Its recent successes are largely dependent on advanced technologies and methodologies, e.g. optics, electronics, detector techniques at all wavelengths, computer techniques such as image processing and the transfer, storage and retrieval of very large data sets.
Astronomy is undoubtedly one of the sciences that enjoys intense public interest, as testified to by the very large number of popular astronomical journals, planetaria, amateur clubs and interested individuals in all countries. It also has a great media appeal, in part because of its exploratory ("adventurous") character and ability to produce spectacular images. With increasing public awareness of the Earth's fragile ecosystems and the obvious influence of external, that is, "astronomical", forces (solar irradiation, variations in the Earth's orbit, collisions with other bodies, radiative effects from nearby cosmic explosions), this science has taken on a new significance in the minds of many people.
Nevertheless, the teaching of this multi-disciplinary science in European secondary schools has been the subject of many vacillations during the past decades. In several countries it is not taught at all, or at the most at a very rudimentary and "old-fashioned" level; in others, some of its elements are included, but most often in a seemingly haphazard way: it is rare that an overall, holistic view is presented. This is despite the obvious fact that many areas of astronomy are relatively easy to comprehend (at least qualitatively) and that this subject is a most illustrative example of the interplay between science, culture and technology in all its historical and modern aspects. It moreover demonstrates the unity of science, gives a host of educationally useful examples of the scientific method, and may also serve as a natural stepping stone into a large number of other areas of human knowledge and activities.
With this background, the EU/ESO Workshop on Teaching of Astronomy was held at the ESO Headquarters, Garching near Munich (Germany) on November 26-29, 1994, with participation of more than 100 European Teachers with particular experience of teaching astronomy and astrophysics at secondary school level. Several representatives of national ministries and local authorities also participated, as well as professional astronomers.
This document presents some important recommendations for the future teaching of astronomy in European Schools, as a result of the wide- ranging deliberations during this meeting. If adopted, they will provide a significant contribution to bringing current teaching of this and related subjects more into line with the present status of this science. It will enhance the students' comprehension of its importance for a great variety of human activities and also ensure that they understand our place in the Universe with all its cultural implications
The participants in this conference unanimously agreed the following aims and initial actions to achieve them.
2. Aims of Astronomy Teaching
Astronomy should contribute towards the consciousness that, in a complex society abounding in science and technology, a scientific education is essential for the choices that every citizen has to make in the democratic life. Students should feel that the Earth is a wonderful place in the Universe, and to be cared for and defended.
The following particular goals are desirable:
i. Astronomy education should be started as early as possible in the primary school and progress in the following years. Through the media, students are nowadays exposed to a multitude of mainly unstructured impressions from the space sciences and associated areas: the teaching of astronomy in schools will establish the structure and the desirable organisational concepts.
ii. By the end of compulsory education, students should have been involved in observation, experimentation and discussion of the following ideas from astronomy:
a. Our place in the Solar System, progressing to our place in the Universe;
b. The nature of objects we see in our sky, for instance, planets, comets, stars, galaxies.
c. Examine thinking from the past ages and more recent times to explain the character, origin and evolution of the Earth, other planets, stars and the Universe.
iii. In initial training of teachers and their subsequent in-service training, these ideas (iia - c) should be introduced and reinforced. Recent studies of students' misconceptions and ideas in astronomy provide a useful basis for the further development of teaching methods.
iv. Since astronomy can provide a unique opportunity for fascinating, whole school activity, support should be provided for optional courses and extra-curricular work in astronomy.
v. Astronomy teaching can contribute to an understanding of the physical laws which start from the human level and reach the macro- cosmos to give a scientific organised outlook on our world and appreciate the uniqueness of the Earth for the human race. Astronomy locates our niche in space and time. Students should be aware of threats, from light pollution and radio interference, to our ability to observe the night sky.
vi. Astronomy teaching conveys the fundamentals of the scientific method, including the associated doubt and lack of answers and the interplay between experiment and theory, thereby forcing students to adopt a critical attitude towards the many pseudo-sciences.
vii. Astronomy knows no national frontiers - the sky is the same above all of Europe - and the teaching of astronomy therefore contributes to international collaboration between students and teachers everywhere.
3. Initial Actions
3. 1 Establishment of a European Association for Astronomy Education
In order to achieve the aims, the participants unanimously decided to form a "European Association for Astronomy Education", an organisation consisting of individual and corporate members, within the following framework:
i. A provisional Executive Committee is established to prepare a constitution and bylaws (including specific proposals for the organisation's goals and aims, procedures of election of officers, membership requirements). It consists of a Chairman, a Secretary, a Treasurer and an Editor.
ii. All those who participate in astronomy education in Europe may become member. Each member will contribute 5 ECU as his/her charter membership fee to cover the preliminary costs of the organisation.
iii. The provisional Executive Committee will work towards the organisation of a constitutional conference within the next twelve months in a place and with means which they will deem appropriate.
iv. All members are urged to contribute to the editor any article or other item which they feel will benefit the association's members.
v. The editor will have the responsibility of setting up a newsletter published at regular times per year (hard and soft copy), the first of which should be distributed by May 1995. At the same time he should look into the possibilities of setting up various other means of communication and collaboration among the association members, including electronic networking.
ESO pledged to support the aims and ideals of the EAAE.
3.2 Teaching of European teachers
All teachers, primary as well as secondary, whether of physics, mathematics, Earth sciences or geography, should be educated in astronomy during their university courses. They should be instructed in the scientific matters as well as in teaching methods.
Teachers will need to receive in-service education in order to be able to teach astronomy. They need special training, access to scientific research, to new educational materials and methods and the possibility for exchange of experience.
This may be done during single day meetings, summer schools, teaching at a distance, as well as by a special newsletter. It may be organised by the local educational authorities of each country, as well as by the organisation now created by the European Association for Astronomy Education. Tuition could be given by professional astronomers as well as by experienced teachers. Occasionally, it would be desirable, if this contact could take place at an Observatory.
3.3 Special activities for European students
For students, Astronomical Olympiads, summer schools, astronomy camps, or exchange of experience by network will contribute to increasing the interest in astronomy as well as getting in contact with each other on a European level, and perhaps by the use of a dedicated microsatellite.
3.4 Development of astronomy courses
The main purpose of astronomy teaching is to make the students aware of humankind's place in the Universe, its bearing on the real world the students live in. Thus, the students will be able to appreciate the singular nature of the Earth in the Universe and the importance of its preservation. Presently, however, this purpose cannot be fully achieved because the relevant topics are scattered over several subjects, such as geography, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and philosophical education. Also, the present curricula in Europe do not fully exploit the natural curiosity of young children for astronomy-related topics, and thus limit what can be achieved at a later age.
To remedy the present situation, we propose the following:
To take advantage of the natural curiosity of young children, astronomy teaching should start at the junior level. In that phase, the teaching should concentrate on the place of the Earth in the Solar System as most of the astronomy-related questions that preoccupy children derive from daily experiences caused by the movement of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun. In order to achieve a good understanding, the following are essential:
1. Models should be used extensively to aid the students in obtaining a three-dimensional understanding of the world around us.
2. Simple observations are necessary to relate the teaching to the real world.
By the age of 14, students should have acquired
- knowledge and understanding of the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and their principal relations (the seasons and their effects, the movements in sky and space, the nature of these bodies, etc.) - a first view of the Solar System.
In addition, they should have
- acquired a basic understanding of what the stars are, and
- performed simple observations of the day- and night-sky.
It is felt that this is the minimum all people should know about astronomy.
Beyond the age of 14, we also propose astronomy for all students continuing with their education. Astronomy teaching at this phase may be based on the concept of "the powers of ten" (study the Universe and its components in a series of steps, each representing an increase in scale of a factor of ten) in order to achieve the desired global picture of the place of humankind in the Universe. In this way, some of the most important elements of astronomy can be covered, such as:
- physics of the Sun, the Solar System and the stars
- stellar evolution
- measurement of distances
- astrophysical tools (instruments, methods)
- the use of artificial satellites and space probes
- evolution of the Universe.
It is the long-term goal of the EAAE to study the possibility of assembling a universal astronomy course based on the above topics.
A "quick-look" course of this type could be given at the beginning of this phase to provide a first survey of the subject and to ensure that those who leave education early have had contact with these important concepts.
With the acquisition of more knowledge about all the natural sciences, the same type of course, but more complete and comprehensive, could be given towards the end of school.
The course would illuminate astronomy as a human endeavour, with associated doubts and lack of answers, the interplay between experiment, observation and theory, the philosophy of science, the scientific method and the interaction between science, technology and society.