Contextualizing Astronomy with
Interdisciplinary Materials and Strategies
A workshop for scientists, educators, and outreach
professionals to highlight interdisciplinary teaching practices
for astronomy and space science.
by Mary L. Radnofsky, Ph.D.
The Socrates Institute
P.O. Box 23751
Alexandria, VA 22304
Pablo Picasso "Girl Before a Mirror"
Presented at the ASP Annual Meeting
September 16, 2006
Goals of Interdisciplinary Work
This interdisciplinary workshop will provide
materials and practice in interactive teaching simulations to help
instructors of astronomy find relationships between space science
topics and seemingly unrelated fields of study. The goal is to better
teach learners from diverse backgrounds in an increasingly complex
world, so they gain a greater understanding of astronomical concepts.
Several interdisciplinary teaching strategies
will be demonstrated and used by session participants. Everyone
will have the opportunity to take on the role of interdisciplinary
astronomy instructor as well as learners with varied interests.
Since most instructors in both formal and informal
teaching situations never had training in interdisciplinary strategies
or content of related disciplines, they are unlikely to teach that
way. This is especially true for female educators and female students,
who tend to avoid subjects, tasks, or strategies perceived to be
too difficult (Baker, 2001). In fact, any teachers with limited
content (and procedural) knowledge avoid teaching certain the subject,
fail to challenge misconceptions, and discourage student interaction
(Ball and McDiarmid, 1989).
Yet interdisciplinary instruction is needed because both research
and learning "become more relevant when there are connections
between subjects rather than strict isolation" (Jacobs 1989;
North Central Regional Educational Lab, 2005). And actually, for
adult learners in informal settings, interdisciplinary courses have
become quite popular, especially when academic subjects are linked
to real-life issues. Some current offerings on the Internet include:
Critical Perspectives in Human Ecology; Interdisciplinary Dentistry,
Interdisciplinary Leadership Training; Falls Assessment & Management;
Community Issues and Service Learning; Alcohol: Behavior, Culture
and Science, to name a few.
In the more formal scientific community, as early
as 1958, the International Council for Science (ICSU) recognized
the need for interdisciplinary collaboration. The ICSU established
"Interdisciplinary Bodies." One of these was the Committee
on Space Research (COSPAR) destined to become the "interdisciplinary
scientific body concerned with progress on an international scale
of all kinds of scientific investigations carried out with space
vehicles, rockets and balloons" (ICSU, 2006).
Another one of ICSU's Interdisciplinary Bodies,
The Committee on Capacity Building in Science (CCBS), was founded
by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman. based on the belief that "the
capacity to understand, utilize and create scientific and technological
knowledge is an essential requirement for economic and social development"
(AAAS, 2006). Conducting and teaching interdisciplinary astronomy
clearly has the support of scientists, and has been shown to be
successful in both informal and formal settings, with learners at
different levels of experience, as illustrated below.
Experimental interdisciplinary teaching strategies
were implemented and assessed in specially-designed interdisciplinary
college science courses. They were found to have a positive impact
on students' critical thinking, problem-solving, and interest in
science and scientific research. For example, Emory University's
interdisciplinary ORDER program successfully increased "science-related
skills such as formulating research questions and communicating
scientific information" and served to "stimulate many
of these young students to pursue research-related interests in
the future"(Sales, et al., 2006).
In an interdisciplinary, upper-level math-science
course at Fort Hays State University, researchers discovered that
in final projects, "students included mathematical tools in
their proposal for all of the laboratory activities... This was
all the more remarkable because of the commonly-reported math-phobia
among non-science majors.... The structure of the course appears
to have helped students connect science to their personal understanding
of the world" (Hohman, et al., 2006).
This is an essential finding, since "Universities
are increasingly called on to train scientifically literate students
capable of addressing complex global problems"(Myers &
Haynes, 2002). But it will take equally complex strategies to accomplish
this. One of these strategies can be interdisciplinary teaching.
The purpose of such interdisciplinary education
is to create multiple neural pathways to the target information
(Caine & Caine, 1991), thus "anchoring" new ideas
to old knowledge (Bransford, et al., no date). When there are multiple
routes to stored information in the brain, students have a greater
ability to sift through and finally retrieve that information, so
the idea is to provide many opportunities to do so. Essentially,
"the degree to which something is retainable and usable depends
on the ability to form associations and networks of associations"(Myers
& Haynes, 2002).
So educators can tap into students' life experiences
with the environment, common chemical reactions, transportation,
music, art, literature, etc., to help them better understand science
(and other subjects) as it applies to their lives. Since "all
questions become interdisciplinary when applied to the human condition"
(Myers & Haynes, 2002), interdisciplinary teaching strategies
will always be needed for teachers to address the increasingly complex
questions our students ask, as well as those we ask of them.
An additional benefit to interdisciplinary teaching
comes to the instructors themselves. In the ORDER program cited
above, the "teacher-scholars" reported that this experiment
had "provided them with invaluable teaching experience that,
because of the subject matter, allowed them to think more clearly
about their own research and its significance to the larger scientific
community" (Sales, et al., 2006).
Partly for these reasons, the Canadian government
committed $285 million to the University of Alberta for building
The Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, which will
be one of a few of its kind in the world to house interdisciplinary
science research teams in one facility. In our own country, Harvard
is expanding its programs to include interdisciplinary science as
The dilemma arises, however, as to how we should
teach such courses, and with what materials. Most of us do not have
the time, resources, or a curriculum-writing team at our disposal
to design an interdisciplinary astronomy course or multi-faceted,
interdisciplinary science presentation. Clearly there is a need
for sources of both broad content knowledge and effective instructional
strategies if we are to successfully reach astronomy learners whose
complex questions extend beyond the field of science.
Interdisciplinary Astronomy Teaching Strategies
Students not only want to see practical applications
of science, they want to understand how it relates to what else
they already know. This idea has a basis in neurology (Myers &
Haynes, 2002), as noted above. When the brain is given new pieces
of information, it seeks to make connections, or associations to
existing, stored data. So, by integrating disciplines other than
astronomy into lessons, instructors can facilitate the "anchoring"
of new knowledge for students. Since everyone has different background
experiences though, instructors will have to increase their teaching
repertoire by adapting the content, rules, and strategies that govern
many other, (often non-scientific) disciplines.
In the following pages, examples will be provided
from several different disciplines, so that, at the end of this
workshop you will be able to teach using at least one of them, and
you will have seen how the rest are used by other workshop participants.
Many of the strategies discussed in this workshop
come not only from specific subject disciplines, but also from the
wide body of educational research in this country and abroad, where
both quantitative and qualitative investigations on the effectiveness
of teaching techniques have been conducted over several decades.
(For more, see The Handbook of Research on Teaching (Richardson,
2001) now in its fourth edition. It is a thousand-page reference
and review of research on teaching, evolving research methodologies,
and diverse conceptual frameworks.)
These strategies will be most effective when the
instructor establishes a learning environment wherein students know
they're responsible to take an active, investigative role in the
So generally, at the start of semester, have students
consider the following questions: "What is science?" and
"What isn't science?" Follow up with the discussion of
"What can science do? and "What can't it do?" These
discussions should prompt big questions about life, and students
will get a chance to identify which questions science can answer
most authoritatively, and which others are of either an emotional
or metaphysical nature.
The tone of such an inquiry-based class can be
unsettling for students, who have been conditioned to listen but
not interact in many courses. But active, student inquiry is usually
quite appreciated in informal educational settings, where the desire
is to interact on both academic and social levels with other learners.
In interdisciplinary classes, at the intersection between several
fields of study, there are many directions in which to take an investigation.
Consequently, "how to decide what to do when all choices are
open, and how to make sense of what you have done, is the ultimate
challenge for any inquiry" (Levenson, 1994, p. 221).
These examples of interdisciplinary teaching strategies
are intended to help instructors guide their students through the
complexities of scientific inquiry in the study of astronomy.
"To understand is to discover... A student who achieves
a certain knowledge through free investigation and spontaneous effort
will later be able to retain it: He will have acquired a methodology
that will serve him for the rest of his life, which will stimulate
his curiosity without the risk of exhausting it. At the very least,
instead of having his memory take priority over his reasoning power...
he will learn to make his reason function by himself and learn to
build his own ideas freely. The goal of intellectual education is
not to know how to repeat or retain ready-made truths. It is in
learning to master the truth by oneself at the risk of losing a
lot of time in going through all the roundabout ways that are inherent
in real activity." - Jean Piaget, 1973
Contextualizing Astronomy with
Interdisciplinary Materials and Strategies
INTERDISCIPLINARY TEACHING STRATEGIES
Mary L. Radnofsky, Ph.D.
The Socrates Institute
1. From the Field of Journalism:
The "5 W's & H" questions that
dominate journalism are especially useful in teaching students astronomy,
by helping focus on the fundamental pieces of information for a
story. In any scientific inquiry, it is vital to identify who, what,
when, why, where, and how a phenomenon, situation, or problem exists.
Some of these variables may be the unknowns that are being investigated,
but to get as complete a picture as possible, systematically consider
the following questions.
Who would be affected by such an event? Who, if anyone, caused
it? Who could observe it? Who could do something about it?
What is the exact nature of the phenomenon? What circumstances
could be changed to more easily study it? What does it look or
sound like as a whole, in separate pieces, from multiple perspectives?
Why did this condition occur? Why is this condition a problem?
Why does it (and should it) concern everyone?
When did the problem first occur? When was it discovered? When
will or could it happen again?
Where has this phenomenon occurred? Where has it been seen directly?
Where could it be better studied (e.g. from space, another hemisphere,
How did this event happen in the first place? How can we learn
about it? How did people in the past deal with it? How did it
affect the planet in prehistoric times? How might it change in
2. From the Field of Art and Art History:
In the field of art, learning how to distinguish
color, hue, tone, saturation, and the effect of color proximity
helps a painter develop an eye for detail, depth of field, light
and shadow, time, geography, and other hints related to an image.
The ability to discern such nuances can be exploited in the study
of astronomical phenomena, first and most obviously in the literal
observation of celestial bodies through the use of sophisticated
telescopes and imaging devices.
More metaphorically, being able to discriminate
and select appropriate tools for constructing one's work of art
is a valued skill in astronomy, where the choice of observational
instrument, mathematical tools, and methodology are essential in
making discoveries. When painters do not find the color they need,
they mix it themselves; similarly, when astronomers do not have
the instrument they need, they build it themselves or partner with
others who can. This allows professionals in both disciplines to
create and analyze their own "pictures." Note that for
astronomers, of course, the options to make images across the electromagnetic
spectrum other than in visible light offer perhaps more choices
and a more complex process, but the opportunity thus arises to discuss
the concept of visible vs. non-visible "light."
The use of light by the Impressionists at the
beginning of the 19th century was significantly different than the
way earlier artists had painted. "Scientific discoveries about
light and color led this group to emphasize the effects of sunlight
on objects" (Ragans, 1995, p.55).
Other aspects of art that can inform astronomy
include design, balance, layering, and perspective. In the design
of an experiment to study a given astronomical phenomenon, these
artistic ideas could all be used when making 2-D or 3-D astronomical
models. Other less obvious ideas are as follows.
In a group project:
- To teach about planets' geological strata,
an investigation using different make-up and consistencies of
paint can show how the characteristics of the paint determine
whether the layers flow into each other in a blurry way as with
watercolor, or if they get deposited into well-defined strata,
as with gobs of acrylic or oil. But if doing a paint demo isn't
possible, show a Chinese watercolor & ink wall scroll such
as one of cranes or flowers (visible here
) and contrast it with a Jackson Pollock oil, enamel, and
aluminum canvas such as "Number 8, 1949" (visible here
- Questions about perspective in art (e.g. Where
is the viewer in the scene? Is the view from eye-level? Is it
a very long exposure or a time-lapse photo? Is it a detailed close-up
detail or broad view?) can lead student investigators to look
for best locations or times to observe a given phenomenon. Some
artists (e.g. Picasso) choose to portray images simultaneously
from multiple perspectives. This is especially remarkable in faces
seen from both the front and profile, such as in his "Girl
in Front of Mirror" and "Dora Maar" (both visible
In the same way, students can understand how views of objects
in space from different perspectives give rise to stellar parallax.
- Students can investigate effects of different
light angles when artists paint identical scenes at different
times of the day or year. This is evident in Monet's series of
"Haystacks," Haystacks in the Morning," and "Haystacks
End of Summer," visible at the Monet
Gallery. In the same way, when students observe the Moon over
time, or in a simulated program such as Starry Night, they can
see how moons or planets look when viewed at different phases,
and even from different locations in space.
- Observe different illustrations of Halley's
Comet, from its 164 BCE Babylonian clay tablets in the British
museum, to its 684 A.D woodcut in the Nuremberg Chronicles, its
later use to explain the Star of Bethlehem, and its appearance
in the Bayeux Tapestry in 1066. It was also sketched by monks
in 1145, and photographed from a mere 20,000 km by the Giotto
spacecraft in 1986. Discuss how people from earlier times developed
beliefs about its power or significance, and an increasing understanding
of what it was. Consider how we reflect both knowledge and interpretation
in images, even in so-called "objective" photography
(See their website
- Consider how the desire to show detail can
affect how an artist works, with what tools, in what medium, and
compare that with motivating factors in the design and construction
of the first telescopes. Consider also the change in our perception
of space when astronomers sent telescopes such as Hubble and Spitzer
into orbit to photograph the universe.
- Consider how art, photography, and film have
given the public a view of places and times they would otherwise
never have seen. Consider how the world's perspective changed
in 1969, when we were able to see an Earthrise as viewed from
a spacecraft orbiting the Moon - something no human had ever witnessed
3. From the field of English/Literature
As with Art, perspective in literature is a valuable
tool for an interdisciplinary approach to astronomy. In addition,
the use of metaphor, analogy, and other literary devices significantly
aid in explaining difficult-to-imagine, extremely large or small,
invisible, or very abstract concepts. There are countless examples
in astronomy, such as likening a comet to a dirty snowball. Analogies
and metaphors such as these help students develop a greater understanding
of the targeted concept, taking words on a printed page and transforming
them into an image in the mind.
Ask students to:
- Choose a different astronomical phenomenon
or object (e.g. motion in the solar system, comets, star death,
galaxy collisions, etc.), and find their own metaphor for it.
A classic exercise is to create a scale model solar system with
both sizes and relative distances of the planets from the Sun,
using everyday objects and recognizable distances. Have students
describe how they might model these other phenomena, given the
metaphors they choose.
- Identify science fiction stories, books, TV,
or film related to space. List events or objects that are not
known to be possible today (transporters, warp speed, travel through
wormholes, artificial gravity, etc.). Discuss aspects of different
phenomena and activities that may be the basis for the fictional
event. Include challenges to the laws of physics, alien life on
Earth, and other fanciful ideas. Distinguish between impossibility
due to inadequate technology (which will improve) and violations
of the laws of physics (which will not change).
- Over a few weeks, bring to class cartoons and
comics that deal with astronomy. Show the most relevant ones to
topics you are discussing that week, and help students find the
humor and other levels of meaning within these literary forms,
whose image/text juxtaposition and format often requires a "reading"
at several layers. This type of activity can also be done with
advertisements, music lyrics, etc.
- Identify some great thinkers for the time period
you will be covering. Discuss how and why their teachings or publications
made a difference at that time (e.g. Plato, Heraclides, Kepler,
Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Curie, Sagan). Discuss
the importance of publishing astronomical findings both to the
scientific community and the public. Ask why personal journal
writings of these scholars may not have been published until late
in their lives or after their death Discuss the scientific and
historic significance of such decisions.
- Consider the first quote below from astronaut
Alan Bean as he described his view of the Sun-Earth-Moon system
after having stood on the Moon, and explain if such a perspective
might have been helpful or confounding to the ancients who sought
to explain our heliocentric Solar System. Study some of his space
paintings as well, as "the only artist who has visited another
world," visible here.
If time, discuss the second part of Bean's remarks about his Moon-based
"I have always thought it was
curious that on the moon, all the stars circulate around you,
but not as fast as they do here; they do it once every twenty-eight
days instead of once every twenty-four hours, and the Sun moves
around you the same way. Yet the Earth, which is the biggest
object there, stays right in the same spot."
"If ancient man had been born on the
moon instead of the Earth, he would have had much more difficulty
determining what was going on because these things would be
in slow motion, except for the one which was still. I felt pretty
sure that in ancient cultures, they would have worshipped the
Earth and thought it was an eye, because it would change from
blue to white and you would see something moving up there that
did look like a colored eye."
4. From the Field of Mathematics
The strategies in this section will be presented
for two audiences, math-phobics, and logical-mathematical thinkers,
a characteristic of one of the seven kinds of multiple intelligences
Students who are math-phobic may shy away from
courses such as astronomy, which use particularly large numbers
in scientific notation, or Greek letters in formulas. Although there
is no quick-fix to math phobia, there are strategies that can help
students see how they likely already use many basic arithmetic skills
and other symbols in their everyday lives.
For these students:
- Ask if they ever wondered things like: how
long it would take to walk around the equator, or how hot it is
at the Sun. Have them supply their own ideas that involve measurement
of some kind, then begin the inquiry process into how they could
go about answering such a question. Where would they even begin?
(For this, they do not necessarily have to do the calculation,
but rather just figure out how they would proceed, and with what
tools, books, etc.)
- Consider the concept of ratios. Have them identify
known ratios in their everyday experiences (e.g. microwave time
vs. weight of frozen meal; cost of food vs. price per pound; miles
run vs. calories burned, height-to-age ratios, etc.). Point out
characteristics of celestial bodies (e.g. size, chemical makeup,
mass, density, etc.), and ask students to take these facts and
create ratios with them to see what the compared pieces of information
can tell us. (e.g. time for a spacecraft to reach a distant planet
vs. speed, and implications for an astronaut; spectral analysis
vs. planet color, etc.)
The second type of learners are skilled math thinkers
whose need for exact answers, logic, order, and balanced equations
drives not only their learning style in educational settings, but
often in their personal lives. With these students:
- Establish a chart of mathematical tools in
two categories: physical tools (e.g. scales, measurements of length
and distance, thermometers, clocks, etc.) and conceptual tools
(e.g. statistics, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, etc.). Ask
students to give examples of how these tools are usually used.
Many will naturally cross over into the sciences. Choose a few
that relate to the week's topic (e.g. determine circumference
of a planet, angular size of the Sun, etc.) Discuss how the choice
of certain tools can help or hinder scientific inquiry.
- Hohman et al. (2006) suggests having them list
general subdivisions of science (e.g. astronomy, geology, biology,
etc.), then discuss which math tools would be most useful to specialists
in these subdivisions, and why. If desired, have learners focus
on fields that are interdisciplinary with astronomy (e.g. astrophysics,
astrobiology, astrochemistry, etc.), and discuss the precise instruments
needed in these areas, why they would be best, etc.
5. From the Field of Music
It is not unusual to look at the connection between
astronomy and music, a topic covered recently in a thorough overview
and annotated bibliography of musical works related to astronomy
by Fraknoi (2006). He points to early astronomers' observations
of the link to music, wherein Kepler and the Pythagoreans believed
"there was a connection between the mathematical regularities
of the orbital motions of the planets and the regularities that
give us a sense of harmony in music." This sense of harmony
actually resonates interdisciplinarily as we consider the connections
between astronomy and such fields as art, literature, and mathematics.
Furthermore, Aristotle wrote that the "great
bodies of heaven could not move without making noise," (Levenson,
1994, p. 24), and that the planets' regular motions indicated numeric
ratios that correspond to musical intervals. It was the Pythagoreans'
idea that nature was perfectly organized in this "music of
the spheres" at the cosmic level. In fact, Pythagoras himself
is said to have understood the mathematical connection to the musical
scale; he discovered the relationship between the measure of an
instrument's string or pipe, and its pitch - a concept essential
to our present understanding of wavelengths, for example.
Music, by its very nature, then, is clearly mathematical,
and this can be useful in finding connections to science. For example,
in addition to the pitch of notes, time is an essential aspect of
music. There are beats, divided into whole or half notes, 32nd or
64th notes, double-dotted eighth notes, etc., all of which last
a fraction longer or shorter than others.
For students who play music, ask them to:
- Explain how beats work, and give examples.
Consider how many notes can be played within an extremely short
time, and how that time is represented (total beats must be equal
in every measure). This representation of an extremely short time
periods then guides the rest of the discussion. Have students
chart other man-made instruments or natural indicators of time
passage over increasingly longer periods (e.g. clocks, calendars,
life cycles, sedimentation, tree rings, radioactive dating, etc.).
As they reach the indicators of extremely long time periods, several
astronomical topics can then be explained (e.g. Big Bang, age
of the universe, speed of light, evolution, etc.).
- Explain how radios work. How do they play music?
Is it different from playing speech? Why are different channels
possible? When driving across country, why do you sometimes lose
the channel? This often-lively discussion can open the portal
to the electromagnetic spectrum, the use of telescopes and cameras
to capture images in different kinds of light, SETI, etc.
6. From the Field of Politics
It is sometimes difficult to disentangle political
decisions from science, not only in past centuries such as with
Galileo and the Catholic church, but today, as illustrated in governmental
decisions to cut NASA funding, to re-assess the country's scientific
agenda, or to spread notions of intelligent design (creationism).
The issue of a heliocentric vs. a geocentric solar system was as
controversial six hundred years ago as is the conduct of stem cell
research in the 21st century. For students active or interested
in politics, ask them to:
- Identify major astronomical discoveries over
the centuries (from the textbook, timeline, or memory), and correlate
these to whomever was in power at the time and place of each discovery.
List major political decisions that may have impacted a scientist
during each time period, and how these decisions could have changed
the course of astronomical research, discoveries, and the state
of knowledge at the time.
- Take on the role of the president of the country,
who has just been informed by top world scientists that life has
been discovered on another planet (currently unsubstantiated,
of course). Have students decide what needs to be considered in
terms of supporting further research, exploration, experimentation,
protecting the planet, limiting global panic, changing textbooks,
etc. Discuss the ramifications of equally ground-breaking discoveries
in past centuries.
- Take on the role of the top world scientist
who has just discovered signs of life on another planet (currently
unsubstantiated, of course). Have students decide what needs to
be done next to continue research, exploration, communication,
publication, etc. Plan how to deal with strong public reactions,
denials, character assassination, and other radical responses
from religious groups and governments.
As with any endeavor into interdisciplinary instruction,
consider the burning questions and the big ideas of the learners
themselves. "Problems of the world are not organized according
to the categories of scholars; solutions to problems as diverse
as pollution, defense, communications, and health require knowledge
and perspectives from several disciplines" (Gaff, 1989). The
power of interdisciplinary teaching strategies is that learners
can tap into their own prior knowledge as well as the combined experiences
of other learners, their instructor, and an almost limitless online
access to any information on the planet.
---- ooo0ooo ----
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