Observatory or museum: Where will future astronomers learn their way around the night sky?

Posted by Anonymous
on Thursday, November 02, 2006

It seems like a silly question to ask, but the longer I participate in astronomy education and outreach efforts, the more I find the focus tends to be on creating exhibits and entertaining sky-show presentations. Is the actual sky no longer part of the astronomy experience? It’s not that I have anything against teaching astronomy concepts in a classroom or an auditorium setting, but the sky is right outside — all the time.

Take, for example, the concept of celestial coordinate systems. When I taught Astronomy 101 in the classroom, I used a celestial globe as a teaching aid. Some students had trouble grasping the concept of the right ascension-declination (R.A.-Dec) coordinate system, maybe because the observer’s perspective is different when looking at the globe. Instead of looking up and out at the sky from Earth’s vantage point, students look down at the globe from the outside and must imagine themselves on the inside looking outward. It’s this difference in perspective that causes some students trouble.

Often, I found those students who had difficulty understanding the concept in the classroom had no such trouble when class was held outdoors. It’s easier to comprehend the difference between the R.A.-Dec. and altitude-azimuth (alt-az) celestial coordinate systems with a familiar constellation like Orion, the North Star (Polaris), and the horizon in view. Locating Orion using its R.A. and Dec. coordinates, it’s easy to show students how the coordinates stay with the constellation wherever it is in the sky. Likewise, observing Orion for a little while and noting its alt-az position, one can see how the coordinates change with the constellation’s position in the sky.

Granted, some concepts are better suited to an indoor setting like a lecture hall, auditorium, or museum. Watching a movie like Deep Impact, which tells the story of what might happen if an asteroid were on a collision course with Earth, is likely more effective than going outside and trying to observe an asteroid. Simulations are also useful in showing what happens during a supernova explosion.

Some astronomical concepts, however, just seem easier to understand in their natural context. Atmospheric transparency, the effects of light pollution, learning about the ecliptic and the types of objects that travel its path, as well as those that follow other patterns, are just a few of the concepts that benefit from a real-world treatment.

Where will you choose to learn about astronomy?

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