A Galaxy of Astronomy and Space Software

Article excerpt

Recently, software publishers have been moving aggressively to put the most exciting astronomy and space science images onto digital media for use in the classroom. In fact, for this article we looked at 22 of the most noteworthy offerings of the last few years. What we hoped to find were programs that took advantage of the latest capabilities of computers--increased speed and storage capacity, and the high-quality color graphics and videos of CD-ROM. We were interested, too, in how these elements were put together from a teacher's perspective. How were students learning? Was the program easy and fun to use? Did games, missions, or other features provide a structured approach to learning? Were students given opportunities to interact with the material?

We also looked at what students were learning. Did the software go beyond trivial facts and figures? Did it enable students to see how astronomers view the universe? Did it give them the opportunity to review actual data, draw conclusions, or get through typical stumbling blocks? Did it invite them to think about the Space Program?

Although all of the programs we test-drove contain elements that would be valuable in the classroom, space constraints have forced us to focus on only our absolute favorites. The others are in the accompanying sidebar. With some overlap, we found the software fell naturally into three general categories: multimedia libraries, tutorials and games, and software tools. Here is a look at each of the top ten, plus two old favorites.

MULTIMEDIA LIBRARIES

* Want to send your students to the library to look up some facts on the planets or our nation's space missions? Send them to the computer instead, with a database program that stores lovely images and video clips on astronomy and space science. Typically, teachers will need to design their own challenges and lesson plans, but the single entry we've included here provides a rich collection of images and a range of tools to help you author your own.

* Beyond Earth (Optical Data Corporation). This title is one of three videodiscs on astronomy and space science that are available in The Living Textbook series. Each comprehensive program contains text, music, thousands of full-color still images, and nearly a hundred short video segments. Audiovisual archives document the Solar System, including its formation, planets, comets, asteroids, shape, rotation, rings, moons, and much more. Other visually stunning elements include a surreal representation of the curvature of space, and time-lapse photography of the night sky. The company has come a long way since it pioneered the use of videodiscs in the classroom more than a decade ago, now including extensive barcoded print directories with descriptions of visuals and transcripts of narrations. Also included are online lesson plans organized by topic and correlated to selections of still images and movie clips.

The accompanying software provides an alternate way to access and organize visuals, can be used with the videodisc to let you view prepared tours, and includes a Lesson Maker with a well-organized retrieval system to make it easy for students or teachers to create presentations. Beyond Earth's sophisticated technical capabilities and thorough educational management tools make it the most complete multimedia package that we have seen.

GAMES & TUTORIALS

* The following software programs were set up to teach astronomy and space science through games, illustrated lectures, and online activities. While teachers can certainly assign special challenges or devise lesson plans to introduce students to the programs, it is not essential. The logic of the game or tutorial already on disk will lead students through a learning sequence.

* Orbits: Voyage Through the Solar System (Software Marketing Corporation). This older program is included here with many newer titles because it is still one of the best pieces of commercially available educational software in astronomy. …