Spatial awareness: Universal student learning
Updated: Jul 18
POP! WHOOSH!... Thus was the universe born into existence. An infinitely small point of space and time has popped into existence and expanded rapidly becoming a baby universe rushing outwards into nothing to give space and time, heat and matter where before there was nothing. For years I have mulled over students learning about their universe in schools. A nagging feeling has been telling me that students will benefit from learning about space, the universe and astrophysics in general. Yet, until recently I was not sure what the true specifics of why this would be the case.
Some initial reasons that come to my mind are an appreciation for the small scale of our problems here on our pale blue dot in the vast cosmos. Students learning about astronomy and astrophysics can fuel their imagination, their creativity, their learning about unusual and conceivable planets, systems, life-forms and multiverses. Astrophysics also connects to learning here on Earth: fusion energy, metals and uncommon materials, history and various other important topics. We are likely to move into space in the current century and Moon / Mars bases are likely to become a reality before 2100, meaning that the current generation are likely to become space-faring. Understanding the realities and risks of space travel will help individuals embrace this coming revolution.
While these intuitive reasons are enough to encourage teaching astronomy and astrophysics in middle and high school, there are others that have surfaced during my writing research.
Reasons from others:
Astronomy is the study of everything - all the way back to ancient history, the learnings of how astronomy has become understood over time is a clear story of how science has progressed as a subject as well.
Astronomy and astrophysics are still on the frontiers of science and we are learning new understandings everyday.
Cultural and historical understandings go hand in hand with astronomy, many cultures developed stories that explained the stars, changes in them or linked the stars to events in their cultures history.
Learning about other planets and star systems highlights the importance and current uniqueness of Earth as the only planet we know to have life (currently).
So given all these reasons above, why is space not consistently included in school curricula? Part of the problem with teaching astronomy and astrophysics in schools is that teachers do not necessarily have the knowledge and therefore confidence to do so. However, I would actively encourage all teachers to consider that their teaching abilities would be more than enough to learn about any given topic together with their students. Furthermore, what is cooler than learning about outer space? (not many things I would wager).
If you are interested in some support in teaching these topics, then some excellent resources which could be used to assist with learning before classroom teaching or during lessons as well:
NASA resources - https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/outreach.html/
PBS nova-teachers - https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/education/resources/subj_12_00.html
Crash Course Astronomy video series - https://thecrashcourse.com/topic/astronomy/
STEM learning - astrophysics (for older students) - https://www.stem.org.uk/resources/community/collection/10353/astrophysics-16-19
The positive I have seen over the previous decade or so in education is that some international qualifications already include some astronomy and astrophysics. The GCSE and IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education), A-levels (both domestic and international) and IB (International Baccalaureate) DP (Diploma Programme) Physics all include at least some astrophysics learnings, however the content covered does vary in those course with some focussed more heavily on fusion and fission while others consider relativity, cosmology and orbital mechanics. This is a particularly positive development and for those who are not required, but considering including astronomy and astrophysics in their teaching, then I would support that at all year levels. These concepts can be taught from the very simple, such as teaching about the planets in our Solar system to younger students.
Image credit - planet size comparison - https://space-facts.com/planets/
To the very advanced topics such as this accessible infographic on black holes from Dominic Walliman shows below.
Image credit - Original author: Dominic Walliman - https://store.dftba.com/collections/domain-of-science/products/map-of-black-holes-poster
Given all the wonderful reasons to educate our future explorers about the space that they will be traveling through, I hope that you will see educating about the universe as a great opportunity rather than a possibly daunting experience.
Finally for those interested in a bit of light reading about space and all its wonderful parts and puzzles, please consider picking up my ebook in an easy to access pdf format (link here). Thanks for considering it.
Cheers and stay curious
Thanks for reading - Oliver - The Teaching Astrophysicist
(Note: This blog post was NOT generated by AI and is conceived, typed and uploaded by a real person.)