Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Improving Introductory Astronomy Education in American Colleges and Universities: A Review of Recent Progress

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Improving Introductory Astronomy Education in American Colleges and Universities: A Review of Recent Progress

Article excerpt


Over the past 15 years, professional astronomers, their societies, and associated funding agencies have collaborated to improve astronomy teaching and learning at the introductory undergraduate level. Many nonscience majors and preservice teachers enroll in these introductory astronomy courses, thus meriting the focused attention. In this review of recent developments, issues, approaches, and resources, we describe and document key instructional assets that have been made available to college and university faculty who wish to enhance their teaching of introductory astronomy. We find that although faculty support has progressed intermittently, there exist numerous programs and resources that faculty can access to increase student engagement and learning in astronomy. As funding support for these various instructional assets have waxed and waned, the professional societies have served as vital anchors and agents for advancing the profession of astronomy education at the introductory undergraduate level. Our findings, though focused on astronomy education, can be applied to the practice of introductory undergraduate education throughout the Earth and space sciences. © 2011 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/1.3651408]


Astronomy (like geology, oceanography, and meteorology) is commonly regarded as a gateway science, where many students gain their first introductions to investigating their natural environment via evidence-based reasoning. At the undergraduate level, approximately 250,000 students take an astronomy course each year in the United States (Fraknoi, 2001a). This amounts to one out of every ten full-time undergraduates, including future teachers, taking at least one course in astronomy during his or her college career (Fraknoi, 2001a; Partridge and Greenstein, 2004). As most of these undergraduate students are nonscience majors enrolled in a limited number of formal science courses, the introductory astronomy course often represents the last opportunity to engender among these students enhanced values for the scientific enterprise as an important part of the public interest. As such, helping college astronomy faculty become more effective teachers and stewards merits a high priority nationwide.

Approximately half of student enrollments in astronomy courses occur at community colleges and small 4-yr colleges (Fraknoi, 2001a), where the science faculty are often asked to teach astronomy as one of many science courses which they are teaching, and where until recently few opportunities have existed for professional development in astronomy education. Moreover, because these faculties teach a variety of courses, their own educational background may not necessarily be in astronomy. At both small colleges and large universities, many astronomy faculties are being asked to update their pedagogical skills and so evolve away from teaching as they may have been taught. Instead of delivering long and fact-filled lectures, they are being encouraged to actively engage the students in learning science by thinking and acting as scientists [National Research Council (NRC), 2003; Slater, 2003; Slater and Adams, 2006], The traditional approach, though often rich in content, has been found to be less than successful in creating positive learning outcomes among the students themselves (Slater, 2003; Prather et al, 2005). Given the recent progress in research-based forms of instruction, along with the continuing need for faculty to update their pedagogical skills, the field of college astronomy education is ripe for sustained professional support.

Thanks to pioneering efforts in astronomy education research, we now know a lot more about the ways students perceive- and misperceive- commonly experienced astronomical phenomena (Bailey and Slater, 2003, 2005; Sadler, 1996; Zeilik et al, 1998). We also have learned effective ways to engage students in confronting their perceptions and in working with scientific data as evidence to reconstruct their personal paradigms of physical reality (Slater et al, 2006; Prather et al, 2009). …

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