eso9418 — Organisation Release

Europe's Astronomy Teachers Meet at ESO

European Association for Astronomy Education Formed

2 December 1994

A joint EU/ESO Workshop (1) on the Teaching of Astronomy in Europe was held at the ESO Headquarters from November 25-30, 1994, under the auspices of the 1994 European Week for Scientific Culture. More than 100 teachers from secondary schools in 17 European countries participated together with representatives of national ministries and local authorities, as well as professional astronomers.

This meeting was the first of its kind ever held and was very successful. As a most visible and immediate outcome, the participants agreed to form the "European Association for Astronomy Education (EAAE)", uniting astronomy educators all over Europe into one network. A provisional Executive Committee of the EAAE was elected which will work towards the organisation of a constitutional conference within the next year.

The participants unanimously adopted a "Declaration on the Teaching of Astronomy in Europe", specifying the overall aims and initial actions needed to achieve them.

Astronomy: Science, Technology and Culture

At the beginning of the Workshop the participants listened to lectures by several specialists about some of the most active fields of astronomy. The scientific sessions included topics as diverse as minor bodies in the solar system, nucleosynthesis, interstellar chemistry and cosmology.

Then followed overviews of various recent advances in astronomical technology, some of which are already having direct impact on highly specialized sectors of European industry. They included the advanced use of computers in astronomy, for instance within image processing and data archiving, as well as a demonstration of remote observing.

Discussing the cultural aspects, Nigel Calder (UK) and Hubert Reeves (France) emphasized the important role of astronomy in modern society, in particular its continuing influence on our perceptions of mankind's unique location in time and space.

Teaching of Astronomy in European Countries

Following this broad introduction to the central themes of the Workshop, representatives of the individual countries presented the current status of astronomy teaching in their respective areas. This was the first time such an exchange of information has ever taken place at a European level, and the participants considered this extremely useful. There are clearly many different approaches to the teaching of astronomy, but it is rarely presented in a global and coherent way. Most often, disparate elements of astronomy are incorporated into other subjects, e.g., geography, mathematics, physics, chemistry, the geo-sciences, history and philosophy.

Only a few countries have so far established well balanced astronomy courses at the secondary level of education. In some places, students may pass through school and only be exposed to the most rudimentary astronomical terms, or none at all.

Nevertheless, these presentations also demonstrated that many changes are taking place in the school curricula in Europe. This opens certain possibilities for future improvements of the teaching of astronomy. According to several participating teachers, now is probably an ideal moment to consider how this basic and exciting subject may best be incorporated.

Declaration on the Teaching of Astronomy in Europe

After further detailed discussions within a number of ad-hoc Working Groups, the Workshop participants unanimously adopted the "Declaration" that is appended to this Press Release.

According to the central statement of this basic document, "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. Moreover, students should feel that the Earth is a wonderful place in the Universe, and to be cared for and defended."

The Declaration also emphasizes the need to establish an international network which will provide an efficient basis for the future cooperation within the teaching of astronomy in Europe. Another important point is the in-service education of teachers that is still lacking in many places. As an unfortunate consequence many teachers are unfamiliar with the more recent advances in astronomy and also unaware of the associated educational materials now available. Several of these were impressively demonstrated during the Workshop and a first, very useful exchange of materials and ideas took place among the participants.

Yet another important subject concerns the wide spectrum of extra-curricular student activities that are possible in connection with astronomy. And last, but not least, the participants established as a desirable long-term goal the development of a unified European astronomy course, optimally incorporating the aims and ideals of astronomy teaching as outlined in this Declaration. 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 as well as the interaction between science, technology and society".

The European Association for Astronomy Education (EAAE)

At the end of the Workshop, the participants by unanimous decision resolved to set up the "European Association for Astronomy Education" which will from now on form the Europe-wide network for this subject and unite all astronomy teachers on this continent.

A provisional Executive Committee was elected which will immediately start up a European Newsletter on Astronomy Teaching and also work towards the organisation of a constitutional conference within the next year. The Chairman is D.P. Simopoulos (2) (Athens, Greece) and the other members are L. Abati (Noventa Vicentina, Italy), A.M. Cohen (Bollington, UK), L. Gougenheim (Paris, France), J.G. More (Glenrothes, UK; Treasurer), M. Reichen (Lausanne, Switzerland; Editor of the EAAE Newsletter), R. Szostak (Munster, Germany; Secretary) and M. Winther (Sonderborg, Denmark).

ESO has pledged to support the aims and ideals of the EAAE.

Notes

(1) See also eso9415 of November 15, 1994.

(2) For further information about the EAAE, please contact: Dr. D.P. Simopoulos, Eugenides Foundation, 387, Sygrou Avenue, P.O. Box 79103, Paleo Faliro, GR-17564 Athens, Greece.

More information

DECLARATION

UNANIMOUSLY ADOPTED BY THE PARTICIPANTS OF THE EU/ESO WORKSHOP ON TEACHING OF ASTRONOMY IN EUROPE'S SECONDARY SCHOOLS

Garching, November 25-30, 1994

1. INTRODUCTION

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.);

and

  • 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.

About the Release

Release No.:eso9418
Legacy ID:PR 17/94
Name:Education, ESO HQ Garching
Type:• X - Events

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