Bringing Telescopes, Wonder, and Inquiry into Our Science Classrooms
Daniel Peluso University of Southern Queensland
How does a traditional science classroom operate? What teaching methods are used? How do students learn? What type of equipment or tools are used to facilitate student learning? This all depends on a variety of factors, such as the background and experience of the teacher, the school’s policies, budget, curriculum, the subject being taught, student population, and many others.
In many science classrooms, students are accustomed to learning mainly through lecture-based instruction models, or direct instruction. These classes are also often supplemented by some form of inquiry-driven learning via labs that utilize scientific equipment related to the subject matter. Scientific equipment usually includes microscopes in biology, chemicals and beakers in chemistry, projectiles in physics, and rocks and soil in Earth science, but what about astronomy? In astronomy, the universe is our lab. Astronomers collect light from the cosmos using telescopes and interpret the results using physics. In most K-12 education settings, community colleges, and undergraduate introductory astronomy courses, it has been difficult to access a telescope that is capable of collecting data for learning purposes.
As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, I took an introductory astronomy course for non-majors to help supplement my learning for a future career in astronomy education. The course was well taught and inspiring, however, in this specific course there was no use of a “lab instrument” (i.e., a telescope) capable of collecting data for inquiry-based learning. I suspect most students are not majoring in astronomy in college, and even more students in K-12 have no experience with the fundamental laboratory instrument for astronomy — the telescope, especially one that is capable of observing deep space objects and collecting astronomical data for inquiry-based learning. How much wonder and inspiration are lost because of this? How many motivating inquiry-based labs and activities are being missed that could have utilized telescope data from one of the most exciting topics in Space Science and astronomy?
In my second year teaching high school physics in the Bay Area, I met Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory astronomer Carl Pennypacker. He helped me to run an after-school astronomy club at Mare Island Technology Academy in Vallejo and introduced me to his astronomy education initiative — Global Hands-On Universe (G-HOU) — and the inquiry-based science pedagogy, Modeling Instruction. G-HOU aims to make astronomy education more powerful by giving teachers and their students access to robotic telescopes, training them in astronomical data analysis, and helping them learn to make models and grow their understanding of astronomy using real astronomical data. Modeling Instruction, curated by the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA), is an inquiry-based science pedagogy that aligns perfectly with the more inquiry-based Next Generation Science Standards, which is being more widely adopted across the US. With Modeling Instruction, there is no lecturing or direct instruction. Instead, the teacher acts as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage,” and student-centered inquiry takes the forefront as students construct, validate, and apply the fundamental conceptual models of the discipline, doing science as scientists do (see How does Modeling Instruction work? and Hestenes, 2013; Jackson et al., 2008).
Serendipitously, Carl and I connected with SETI Institute astronomer, Franck Marchis, who at the time was at the beginning stages of building a global citizen science network using a new type of digital easy-to-use smart telescope, called the Unistellar Enhanced Vision Telescope (eVscope, see Figure 1). This and other formed relationships materialized into my current multidisciplinary PhD project with the University of Southern Queensland, where I’m focusing on combining exoplanet science, citizen science astronomy, and Modeling Instruction astronomy in education. With Modeling Instruction astronomy, teachers help students build, test, and deploy the fundamental conceptual models of astronomy using the same scientific processes and techniques that professional astronomers use.
With over 8,000 eVscopes around the world in both the northern and southern hemispheres, the Unistellar network is one of the largest citizen science telescope networks in the world. Their portability and easy-to-use operation via their smartphone application make them a perfect teaching tool to introduce students and teachers to the beauty of the night sky. In addition to their ability to capture deep space objects, even in light-polluted skies, their digital light sensor and onboard computer allow them to also capture scientific quality astronomical data from satellites, spacecraft, asteroids, comets, and exoplanets (e.g., Marchis et al., 2020; Lambert et al., 2022; Pearson et al., 2022; Perrocheau et al., 2022) for inquiry- and project-based citizen science activities and learning — perfect for Modeling Instruction astronomy lessons.
In January 2022, Modeling expert Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz and I co-led our newly developed course, Astronomy Modeling with Exoplanets. In the course, we utilized updated G-HOU and 2019 Modeling Astronomy activities to implement Unistellar network data to train high school teachers in professional astronomer skills, such as photometry and planning exoplanet observations. By engaging the Unistellar network, we acquired over 100 custom deep space images and transit light curves (see Figure 2) for the teachers and their students. Early results from an education study (currently in progress) show that teachers who took the course report an increase in motivation and competence in teaching data-driven astronomy in their schools (Peluso et al., in prep). Additionally, these teachers report that their students were more motivated in learning by doing versus “out of a book” experiences and were excited by feeling like real astronomers (Peluso et al., in prep). In 2023, AMTA will host the second iteration of our course, which is suitable for any educator teaching introductory astronomy or physical science with astronomy concepts at middle school, high school, community college, or beyond (click here to learn more and if you are interested in registering).
Another notable accomplishment in placing Unistellar eVscopes in education comes from a generous grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which has allowed our team at the SETI Institute to donate 30 Unistellar eVscopes since 2021 to community college astronomy professors and develop a new program, called the Unistellar College Astronomy Network (UCAN). The goal of UCAN is to encourage observational astronomy and inquiry-based science education experiences for teachers and students. In UCAN, we train the professors to make full use of the eVscopes with their students, regularly hold virtual workshops for participants, introduce them to G-HOU and Modeling Instruction astronomy activities, and support and encourage them to make their own activities. The “Our Place In Space!” curriculum, detailed in a recent AAS blog post, aims at similar goals by connecting students to data from robotic professional-grade telescopes. To learn more about UCAN and to inquire about having your community college join, please visit the UCAN website.
Our nation’s education system is in peril with one of the most detrimental teacher shortages of all time (see National Education Association or US News & World Report). Compared to the global level, national students' science and mathematics scores are also suffering below average, as they have been for many years (see National Center for
Education Statistics). Future economic success depends on a nation’s innovative spirit and its people’s skills in and desire to enter the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workforce. Teachers feel undervalued, overworked, and unappreciated. Students are taught what to think, not how to think, and their curiosity, wonder, and creativity are not cultivated by our education system. It’s no wonder our education system has reached such a critical point.
Astronomy has the power to inspire and connect us. Many teachers, including myself, will attest to how excited our young people get when they get to talk about space and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. With new telescope technologies, citizen science networks, and developing and offering new teacher training programs to build up our teacher workforce, we may be able to help in some small way to strengthen our society’s future. However, we must be willing to change the status quo, imagine like a child, and set aside the “sage on the stage” practice to “guide on the side” towards a more enriching and inspiring student-centered inquiry of the cosmos.
Hestenes, D. (2013). "Remodeling Science Education." European Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 1(1), 13–22.
Jackson, J., Dukerich, L., and Hestenes, D. (2008). "Modeling Instruction: An Effective Model for Science Education." Science Educator, 17(1), 10.
Lambert, R. A., Marchis, F., Asencio, J., Blaclard, G., Sgro, L. A., Giorgini, J. D., ... & Fairfax, M. (2022). "Citizen Science Astronomy with a Network of Small Telescopes: the Launch and Deployment of JWST." Ground-Based and Airborne Telescopes IX (Vol. 12182, pp. 965-979). SPIE.
Marchis, F., Malvache, A., Marfisi, L., Borot, A., & Arbouch, E. (2020). "Unistellar eVscopes: Smart, Portable, and Easy-to-Use Telescopes for Exploration, Interactive Learning, and Citizen Astronomy." Acta Astronautica, 166, 23-28.
Pearson, K. A., Beichman, C., Fulton, B. J., Esposito, T. M., Zellem, R. T., Ciardi, D. R., ... & Wünsche, A. (2022). "Utilizing a Global Network of Telescopes to Update the Ephemeris for the Highly Eccentric Planet HD 80606 B and to Ensure the Efficient Scheduling of JWST." The Astronomical Journal, 164(5), 178.
Peluso, D., Megowan-Romanowicz, C., Pennypacker, C., Marchis, F., Carter, B., and Wright, D. (in preparation for submission). "Motivation and Competency in Modeling Instruction Astronomy." Journal TBD.
Perrocheau, A., Esposito, T. M., Dalba, P. A., Marchis, F., Avsar, A. M., Carrera, E., ... & Will, S. (2022). "A 16-Hour Transit of Kepler-167 e Observed by the Ground-based Unistellar Telescope Network." arXiv preprint arXiv:2211.01532 and in press, Astrophysical Journal Letter.
Zellem, R. T., Pearson, K. A., Blaser, E., Fowler, M., Ciardi, D. R., Biferno, A., . . . Malvache, A. (2020). "Utilizing Small Telescopes Operated by Citizen Scientists for Transiting Exoplanet Follow-Up." Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 132(1011), 054401. doi:10.1088/1538-3873/ab7ee7