A few months back I did a column on classroom careers for scientists. Several readers have suggested a follow-up on what astronomy departments can do for teachers, especially elementary teachers. I’ve participated in many discussions concerning this issue, and even joined colleagues in writing a couple of proposals to the National Science Foundation. Neither proposal was accepted, so perhaps they weren’t very good ideas. Nevertheless, I have plenty of thoughts on the issue of college programs for teachers, so I might as well take this opportunity to share them.
Many colleges already have partnerships that bring scientists and teachers together, but I believe there are three major ways in which we could go much farther in helping elementary teachers to be better science teachers. In terms of the difficulty of implementing these three ideas, I rank them as hard, harder, and hardest. Let’s start with the one that is only hard, which is creating an add-on seminar for pre-service teachers enrolled in standard introductory astronomy courses.
The essence of the idea is this: elementary school children love astronomy, so why not use it to motivate them to learn across the curriculum? For example, we could encourage children to read about astronomy, write about astronomy, do art projects with astronomy, and do simple astronomical calculations. I know this works, because for several years I ran a successful summer school that focused exclusively on such interdisciplinary applications of astronomy; we only need to show teachers how it can be done. The best opportunity we have to reach large numbers of teachers is at the pre-service level, when many future teachers are enrolled in introductory astronomy. I don’t believe that the teachers should take a special version of astronomy, because they should get the same in-depth science experience as all other students. However, a 1- or 2-unit add-on seminar could be very valuable. As students follow the flow of their introductory astronomy class, in the seminar they would explore classroom applications of what they’ve learned. For example, the seminar might focus on how to overcome misconceptions, how to do simple astronomy projects, and most importantly, how to integrate astronomy throughout the curriculum.
What makes creating such a special seminar hard? First, it probably requires a team-taught effort between an astronomer and either an elementary teacher or an elementary specialist from the college’s School of Education, and both must devote substantial effort to preparing the class. Second, if you want prospective teachers to enroll, the course must give them credits toward their eventual certification. Third, the course would ideally include opportunities for the students to try some of their ideas in actual classrooms, which means setting up a collaboration with local schools. None of these obstacles should be insurmountable in principle, but in my own case they were enough to prevent it from happening at the University of Colorado (where I was teamed up with another astronomer, Fran Bagenal, and an education professor who has since moved to a different institution).
The second major way that I believe we could help elementary teachers is just that — major. The vast majority of elementary teachers have undergraduate degrees in nonscience fields, which means their science background is limited to the few courses required for graduation. But their choice of majors does not necessarily indicate a lack of enthusiasm for science or astronomy. Rather, it reflects a lack of choice for students who don’t want to take advanced calculus and upper-level physics. Why not create a new kind of astronomy major, in which the students don’t need advanced calculus but still get far more science than required for graduation? Such a major could include basic courses in all the sciences, several follow-up courses to introductory astronomy, and perhaps some courses in topics related to human spaceflight and commercial use of space. It wouldn’t prepare the students for jobs as physicists, but it surely would prepare them to be outstanding elementary teachers. (I believe such a major would also prove popular among future lawyers and business folks.) Creating a major is “harder,” because in addition to the logistical challenges of a special seminar, it requires creating a new set of courses and hiring faculty to teach them.
The third idea is similar to the second, but at the Masters level. A Masters degree is valuable to teachers, because an advanced degree often brings a salary increase. To my limited knowledge, the vast majority of teachers seeking Masters degrees do so in Education, largely because it is often the only choice for which they both have the prerequisites and for which they won’t be learning something so specialized as to be of little use in an elementary classroom. But the fact that astronomy can be put to such broad classroom use makes it an idea subject for something like a Masters Degree in Classroom Astronomy. The degree requirements would include courses both in astronomy (and related sciences) and in methods for using astronomy in the elementary curriculum; note that while a course or two in educational research might be valuable, this would not be the primary emphasis. As with the major described above, the coursework would be different from that of future astrophysics workers, but it would be no less valuable for its purpose.
Some colleges may have already implemented some of these programs, but if so I’m unaware of them. Nevertheless, for those of you who want to improve the science qualifications of elementary teachers, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought.