365daysDate: July 29, 2009

Title: Why Should We Teach Astronomy in High Schools?


Podcaster: Colin Jagoe


Description: The podcast episide looks at the state of astronomy education in high schools. A discussion with Dr. Larry Krumenaker on the research he did as his PhD dissertation at the University of Georgia. The focus question of Why teach astronomy in high schools provides the starting point for discussions with Dr. Krumenaker and with students who have taken an astronomy course in high school.

Bio: Colin Jagoe is a high school educator in Ontario Canada. He has taught secondary school science for 12 years, and is currently an Instructional Leadership Consultant for Science and Technology K12 in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board in Ontario.

Today’s sponsor: This episode is proudly sponsored by: Joseph Brimacombe, a mega-enthusiastic amateur astronomer based at the Coral Towers and Macedon Ranges Observatories in Australia, and the New Mexico Skies observatory in the United States, and is dedicated to: my first astronomy buddies: Lawrence, Moira, Liz, Alec, and Kayte (when at home); and Timothy, Alex and Charles (when at school). To this day, I still think about our first look at the moon through binoculars; our first look at saturn and the ring nebula though a telescope; and the unforgettable fireball we saw blazing over our hometown city of Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, one cold winters night in 1976. For more information go to: or southern


Hi. Welcome to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast for July 29th.  Why should we teach astronomy in our high schools? I’m Colin Jagoe, from  I am a high school educator in the province of Ontario, Canada. 

For a few years now, I’ve been able to teach a high school level course in Astronomy.  Having a dedicated high school astronomy course seems to be a pretty rare event.  In an era in which students and schools are increasingly under pressure to perform in high stakes standardized testing, astronomy courses are often unable to be selected by students, and are very often the ones that are left to wither when the school evaluates which courses it should be offering in it’s timetable. According to Dr. Larry Krumenaker, a researcher from Atlanta Georgia, only 12% of US high schools have such a course with then only about 3.5% of high school students actually studying astronomy.

With that in mind, I decided to focus this podcast episode on the question, “Why should we teach astronomy in high schools?”  I talked to Dr Krumenaker and asked about the current state of astronomy education in the United States.

“At the moment, US high schools are having a pair of pressures on them.  They are currently expanding in terms of numbers of schools extremely slowly, but the number of sections has been dramatically stomped on by the No Child Left Behind act and other effects. So, the total number is still growing slightly, it’s up to about 3.5 percent of all high school students take an astronomy course.  And those courses, generally one, or at most two sections in the high school are found in about 12 percent of all high schools in the United States, which is not all that many.  This works out to be about 80 000 kids. 

Normally the high school course is all inclusive, it covers solar system, it covers stellar system.  We teach you everything in the universe in one semester.  That’s the average, you will find exceptions of course, but that’s the general average.  The teachers that teach it are generally well educated, 70 – 80% have masters degrees, and it tends that if they got a science degree on the undergraduate side, they went and got a masters degree on the graduate side or vice versa.  And somewhere in there, most of them have taken at least one, and sometimes two astronomy courses, and that’s what qualifies them.  There are some that haven’t, about 15%, and generally its a capstone course, about 3/4 of the time, it’s the course you take after you take all the required courses.”

In order to reach out to the education community I posted the question “Why teach Astronomy?” on several internet locations.  The responses were varied and lively.

A commenter on a blog post wrote:

“Why teach astronomy? Why not! As a middle school teacher, I see astronomy as a gateway topic into science. I’ve never had a student tell me they wished they didn’t have to study the sky, the stars. It’s also an incredibly abstract subject. The distances are so vast. I recall being simply amazed in college when the professor would tell me all about a star–using only the electromagnetic spectrum. Our kids are the same way. We need to foster that wonder and excitement to build upcoming scientists and thinkers.”

That pretty much sums up my  thinking on the subject as well.  The students I’ve been able to teach often feel the same way.  Astronomy is a wonderful gateway subject that can provide a ‘hook’ to the student to study many other aspects of science.  It’s also an interdisciplinary subject that draws on so many of the ‘traditional’ science subjects. A respondent on Twitter answered the question with  “because it’s a great in-road to science and it melds physics, chem, bio and math together with a ‘wow factor’.”  My feelings exactly 

Dr. Krumenaker.  

“First of all, astronomy is the most interdisciplinary, or multi-disciplinary, or cross disciplinary course there is.  You can involve every science you can think of in astronomy course to keep interest and to gather students.  You can include more math, you can do language arts, you can do historical research in there, you can do contemporary science, you can do traditional science.  You can play this game six different ways to Sunday.  That’s the first thing.  Second thing, because its so interdisciplinary, it makes a great capstone, you can unite all those lessons they learned in the compartmentalized courses. Everything they learned in Bio usually doesn’t transfer to Physics and what they learn in Physics doesn’t transfer to Chemistry, but if you do it in astronomy, you can incorporate everything they did and reinforce those lessons, so it’s a fantastic reinforcement.  It also actually helps  and doesn’t hinder the AYP process here in the United States, the Adequate Yearly Progress thing that you have to worry about, because if you do include a little more math, and some language arts it helps the students raise their grades.  The converse of that is, since it’s usually a capstone, the kids are usually past that point, so this works if you’re mostly talking about a course that is open to all grades.  And the other advantage is that students are interested and more students will take this class over any other science because they want to be there and this could be the last chance to turn kids on to science. Those are the main reasons that you should offer astronomy, and there are some other ones, like this is a lifelong thing.  You don’t find too many home quantum mechanics out there, but you will find amateur astronomers, and astronomy is one of the few sciences that you as an amateur can actually contribute to the science, whereas the home physicist, you just never hear of him making a discovery, it doesn’t happen.  It can be lifelong, they can take this with them, for the rest of their lives and explain it to their kids why that star is bright and this one is moving and so on and so forth..”

To get a student perspective on the question, I sat down with Rachel, Jessie, & Scott, a small group of high school seniors who had taken an astronomy course and talked with them about their experience.  I asked them why they took an astronomy class, some of their feelings about what they had studied and what they think about the question “Why should we teach astronomy in high schools?”

Scott: When I was a kid I remember going with my parents, my dad’s a meteorologist, so he’s really into the whole weather and the sky thing, and I remember driving around and seeing one of the comets that came by and seeing a solar eclipse and wondering what was going on.  And then you come to high school and there’s an actually course about astronomy, and you’ve got all your books about astronomy, the planets, and everything. A little telescope, and it’s just amazing to be able to learn about the things that you’ve been wondering about for so long. Every kid looks at the sky and wonders what the stars are about, and for me to actually get to learn about exactly what they were was amazing.

Jessie: I think that the other thing was that in grade 10, and in grade 9 a little tiny bit, you do a tiny section about astronomy in the course. You have to star journal.  Me and Rachel loved the star journal!  We did a great job!  But it’s always like the tiny bit, that it doesn’t answer all your questions.

Rachel: And it leaves you wanting more.

Jessie: And you just think, ‘Wow, this is what I learned but I don’t understand this part of it,’ or ‘This is really interesting, but what about this?” And so it was kind of a way to tie up the knots that we had found in grade 10.

Scott: It’s one of those courses where you could never learn anything about it, but you always wanted to learn more about it.  So like in grade 9 you learn about a star or something, and then you get into the astronomy class and you start learning about what actually stars are, and from that comes more questions which might be answered in the course, or might not be, but its the only course where you walk out of the class and you’re filled with a sense of wonderment.  Like after the Pale Blue Dot lesson, I can still remember that, after you showed us that picture, I walked out of the classroom and I couldn’t … my mind had exploded! You can’t fathom, and it’s just interesting to be able to learn about something that you can’t wrap your mind around.

Rachel: I just liked looking at the stars. I had a thing for constellations, and I’m maybe not as scientifically interested as you, but it’s just like it’s something up there that we can never be a part of, but we can learn about we can wonder about it.

Scott: I can’t remember how you phrased it, but one day you told us something about how we’re learning about our neighborhood today, where we live, what goes on around where we live, that was the scope.  Astronomy’s not a course where you say OK, today we’re going to learn some random facts about stuff that if you’re not going into organic chemistry like the hydrocarbons, or you’re not going into quantum physics or nuclear physics or anything, then you don’t need to know about it.  But astronomy, it teaches you where you are, what’s going on around you and everything like that. It’s just such a course that’s necessary, because you need to know these things. You need to know your neighbors, you need to know who’s up and down your street, you like to know who’s in your country, why not know your solar system, why not know your sun, your neighbor planets and the galaxy we’re in and all that.  And the universe that you live in.  It’s a pretty big deal, we’re part of it, without it we wouldn’t be alive.

It would appear that the high school astronomy course is a rare commodity in our educational systems. There are few courses offered and few students who study astronomy.  The upside of this is that along with the rarity, comes the value.  The teachers are passionate, they offer courses that they love to teach,  to students who for the most part, want to learn.  We may be few in numbers, but we are mighty in spirit.  Astronomy is a unique blend of disciplines and skills, and offers a wonderful glimpse of the universe to those who chose to look.  Astronomy teachers take heart!  You’re doing important work, and deserve to be congratulated.  As we wind down the North American summer holidays and get ready to head back to class, look forward to another year of opening up the door to your classrooms, and the windows to the universe.

So, why should we teach astronomy?  In my opinion, because understanding astronomy helps us to understand ourselves, our universe, our home.  Couldn’t we all use a little more of that?

Thanks for listening!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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