Integrating Astronomy activities into school curriculum

It is no secret that Astronomy and space inspire children to take an interest in Science and Math. They have generally been utilized on a stand-alone basis, at special events or workshops to get kids excited. But what happens after the workshop? The issue of sustaining children’s interest in STEM subjects has not been properly addressed. Now, the South African government has embarked on a path to redress this omission.

South Africa has witnessed a decline in student performance in Mathematics and Science. Government data indicates that the number of learners who wrote Grade 12 Mathematics and Physical Sciences dropped by 19% and 15%, respectively, between 2008 and 2013 (SAASTA). According to studies(Niculae et al, 2006), a major reason is the way in which these subjects are taught at school. Unsure of the applications of science and technology, teachers fail to make a connection with the real world, thereby making the lessons irrelevant or unnecessary in the eyes of the student. Braund et al,2006 discovered that the methods of teaching are “designed to a minority of future scientists, rather than equipping the majority with the scientific understanding, reasoning, and literacy they require to engage as citizens”.

The situation could lead to serious consequences and if not confronted, the future of the country could be at stake. The Government of South Africa, represented by the National Research Foundation (NRF), is exploring new ways to make learning exciting. It has identified ‘priority areas’, including Astronomy and Paleoscience, which would be used to create a stimulating learning environment. Educational materials in these priority areas would serve to make the learning process fun and interesting by way of their inherent, fascinating nature.

The South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) conducted an “Astronomy materials and activities” workshop last Saturday, where various educators, outreach bodies, and universities were invited. The goal was to finalize a plan to develop and integrate Astronomy activities into school curriculums. Being an integral part of the Astronomy education landscape in South Africa, the IAU-OAD was also part of this gathering.

The first step was to try and pool our knowledge of existing materials. The various stakeholders presented the Astronomy resources they were using or had developed. Over the years, the OAD and its partners have amassed a wealth of Astronomy material, but on account of the short time given, I had to choose the most relevant projects.

AstroEdu was top of the list, since it contains a peer-reviewed database of activities to learn Astronomy that could easily be adapted to a curriculum. Universe Awareness (UNAWE) is another great source of Astronomy resources, especially for young children. Since knowledgeable teachers are critical to a good education system, I also talked about teacher training programs in Astronomy – Galileo Teacher Training Program and the Network of Astronomy School Education. Finally, utilizing models and instruments in the classroom are one way to keep boredom at bay. The telescope produced by the Galileoscope project and UNAWE’s ‘Universe in a Box’ are great examples of educational hardware. And of course, there is a tremendous amount of resources openly available online. Some of them such as NASA wavelength are reviewed and approved while others are not. Unfortunately, there is no single repository of Astronomy resources on the internet. (one such database, the Astroweb, is no longer maintained)

Other stakeholders such as the SKA, HARTRAO and the SAAO gave short presentations on the activities and resources they use in Astronomy outreach. This included children’s books on Astronomy, models of planets, cardboard telescopes, and other educational kits. Each of them also conducts Science festivals, learner and teacher workshops, school visits, Astronomy school competitions, Science camps, and other regular events.

SAASTA plans to come up with a comprehensive list of Astronomy-related activities and lessons that can be mapped to specific learning objectives at different levels. For example, shapes of celestial bodies can be used to teach concepts in geometry at the Foundation phase. The preparation of such a list has been initiated by the STePSuD (Science and Technology Professional Support and Development Foundation) group. In time, these lessons will be reviewed and more activities will be added. This will be the first concrete step in integrating Astronomy into the curriculum.

Post the identification of topics in the curriculum that can benefit from being mapped to Astronomy activities, the NRF will set up a writing team consisting of academic experts, curriculum experts from the Department of Education and science engagement specialists. The material developed by this content team will be accompanied by manuals for educators. The possibility of educators themselves being directly involved in content creation is up for discussion at the moment. On a pilot basis, the project will be rolled out to select schools. The feedback provided will be used to improve the product before full implementation.

With all the information and a lot of the resources already at hand, it is a matter of engaging with the right stakeholders, discussing the best way to approach the task, developing a complete plan, organizing the resources, and finally, implementing what will hopefully stall the nation’s declining STEM education.

This blog post was written by Ramasamy Venugopal, a visiting fellow from India, who attended the workshop on behalf of the OAD.