A Bright Star in Science Education
A group of elementary school students walks down a busy Oakland sidewalk, counting their paces aloud. Stopping at a corner, their teacher pushes a red thumbtack into a telephone pole. "Okay, everybody!" he calls. "This is Mars. Where do we go next?"
"Jupiter!" shouts an excited fifth-grader. "And how far to Jupiter?" the teacher asks. The student checks her notes for the answer: 88 meters. The children's starting point is the "Sun" a basketball taped to a pole in the schoolyard. With the help of a visiting astronomer, the children convert the solar system's great distances to scale and map it out, hanging their "planets" along the way.
This is Project ASTRO in action. It is an NSF-funded program of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) uniting professional and amateur astronomers with teachers and youth leaders to introduce astronomy to kids between the ages of 9 and 15.
ASP launched Project ASTRO in California in 1993, eventually reaching more than 150 youth organizations and schools. In 1996, with a grant from NSF's Informal Science Education Division, Project ASTRO expanded to six new sites across the country.
"Astronomy is a unique science in that it boasts a large number of amateurs," says ASP's Andrew Fraknoi, Project ASTRO's founder and Director. "NSF was excited by our proposal to tap into this arena. Amateur astronomers are wonderful role models, and they show students that you don't have to be a scientist to be passionate about science."
Astronomers involved with Project ASTRO become part of the educational leadership team working directly with kids. Although it requires a significant time commitment from the astronomers, Project ASTRO pays off for everyone. Astronomers gain an understanding of current issues in science education. Teachers and youth leaders increase their confidence handling the complex concepts of astronomy. And the kids develop an excitement for science.
"The goal is for students to see what science is all about," explains Dennis Schatz, Associate Director of the Pacific Science Center. "Scientists aren't fascinated by a bunch of facts; they are fascinated by the discovery process."
In addition to immediate classroom value, Fraknoi says the program's new coalitions of science and educational organizations will have long-term benefits. "It is our hope that these linkages will transcend ASTRO, and will lead to other programs in science education."
It is already working in Seattle. School districts and museums linked through Project ASTRO are now exploring ways of maintaining the project beyond NSF funds, as well as discussing other collaborative projects.
As for the kids back in Oakland, the 342 million miles between Mars and Jupiter are swiftly brought into perspective. With the last planet hung, the fifth-graders stand and survey their nearly perfect model of the solar system. They're a bit tired, but definitely excited. More importantly, they now have something many their age cannot claim: an understanding of the vast distances of outer space.
For more information, see Project ASTRO's Web site: http://www.aspsky.org/subpages/proj.html or call (415) 337-1100.