Learning Science

This post is part of a series on the Making of CosmoQuest.
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According to psychologist Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. For most scientists, these hours are acquired over years of schooling and apprenticeships. By the end of an undergraduate program, a dedicated astronomy major can be at the 9000 hour mark – but at this stage they are still generalists who have only curated an overall knowledge and expertise in their field. In graduate school, they will narrow their focus, and over 6 more years put in at least 12,000 more hours as they focus down ever further. There is a reason someone with a PhD is considered an expert.

But working in an university classroom and laboratory isn’t the only way to become an expert, and learning isn’t restricted even to adults. Science, math, and music are three fields where expertise is recognized in youths.

In designing CosmoQuest, we wanted to create pathways for anyone with an interest – child or adult – to begin the journey to becoming an expert in astronomy and space science. We also wanted to facilitate teachers in bringing our content into their classrooms; we could only hope that some of these classroom kids would become at-home science junkies! As the program has continued to grow, we’ve also realized, parents and children can grow closer by doing science together. In order to fulfill the needs of these audiences, we have focused our efforts in five directions: curating a free repository of astronomy content; creating an Educators’ Zone for teachers (including generating lesson plans tied to citizen science projects) and supporting on-going teacher professional development; developing the Galileo Student’s Program to support kids clubs and independent students with a passion for astronomy; nurturing family science engagement; and offering CosmoAcademy classes for adult learners. Each of these efforts are detailed below.

The Library of Science

Astronomy is a constantly changing field, and trying to create paper books that can get revised at the pace of discovery is an impossible task. Books are also expensive, and not everyone who wants to learn has the extra $100 per book to spend on learning astronomy and planetary science. With the internet, however, it becomes easy to aggregate up-to-date content. Our long-term goal is to create a content repository for astronomy and space science that is modeled on the Hyper-physics concept-web model, and that allows educators to select content sets to download as custom ebooklets or to digitally assign to students.

Today, our content repository exists as a modest WordPress site called the “Library of Science.” We have aggregated content from partners (most notably Chris Impey’s “Astropedia”), written content as needed, and we are working try and tag everything using the AVM metadata standard developed by the IAU division 55 Virtual Astronomy Multimedia Project. This is funded through NASA ROSES EPOESS grant NNX12AB92G S04.

Educators’ Zone: Curricula and Teacher Professional Development

The needs of a teacher are tough to meet. These men and women are tasked with preparing the world’s children for a still being defined future, but are hamstrung by limited time and resources, over-crowded classrooms, and external guidelines that sometimes feel like they dedicate classroom material (and often do dictate classroom testing). They are also limited by their own ability to keep up with changing content (as new discoveries are made), and sometimes even by a lack of any prior content training (as language teachers get asked to also teach science). In creating our Educators’ Zone, we wanted to create a safe place for teachers of all backgrounds to come, learn, and get all the resources they need to get astronomy and planetary science into their classrooms. To meet this goal we: create curricula to accompany CosmoQuest citizen science projects, and develop real-world and virtual teacher training programs that allow for long-term teacher involvement. All programs within Educators’ Zone are created in partnership between SIUE and the Galileo Teacher Training Program (GTTP) that is run out of NUCLIO.

To-date, we have created curricula to support CosmoQuest citizen science in general, and also to specifically accompany Moon Mappers and Asteroid Mappers: Vesta. Each program is based on the inquiry cycle, framed within the 5E teaching method, and is cross-linked with relevant teaching standards.

  • TerraLuna
  • In-Vesta-gate
  • Astronomy vs Astrology
  • Cosmic Castaways

As CosmoQuest grows, we would want our diversity of available classroom materials to grow as well, and we would seek to design six new curricula packages a year using educational staff available at SIUE and at NUCLIO. This collaboration with NUCLIO brings CosmoQuest expertise in working with disadvantaged school districts and in working with visually impaired students. NUCLIO is also the home of the IAU Portuguese language center, and can provide translation services that will allow CosmoQuest content to be used by the roughly 220 million native Portuguese speaks around the world.

In order to prepare educators to teach astronomy and space science, we have taken a two-pronged approach: we facilitate single-theme professional development workshops, and we use online forums and Hangout-on-Air series to provide regular updates in a community environment.

All teacher training workshops are conducted in collaboration with the Galileo Teacher Training Program, allowing teachers trained as part of CosmoQuest to be part of a much larger network of astronomy and space science educators that spans the globe.  These workshops, which are part of the Galileo Teacher Training Program, can be as brief as a 90-minutes introduction to an educational product, or they can be multi-day boot camps that provide educators with a crash course in content and techniques for use in the classroom.

We don’t want our teacher training events to be one-off moments of science for the educators. We want to build a community of teachers who receive ongoing support. This is provided through a quarterly CosmoQuest specific newsletter, an as-needed newsletter produced by GTTP, through an Educators’ Zone section on the CosmoQuest Forums, and through regular Hangouts-on-Air. Currently, the CosmoQuest team at SIUE produces the Learning Space Hangout-on-Air series, which spends one hour every other week hosting special guests from different educational programs, and showcasing awesome science demos or interactives.

Galileo Students Program

Many of the adults working within the CosmoQuest network were children who loved space and/or astronomy, but who didn’t necessarily have a cohort of other students they could share their hobby with. While some of us were lucky enough to find summer programs, or local astronomy clubs at one point or another, this wasn’t a universal experience. In building the Galileo Students Program, we wanted to create a global program that would create that astronomy camaraderie for anyone with access to the internet.

The aim of Galileo Students is to involve youth from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds in a common goal: building a global science community. Dovetailed with this goal is allowing students to see themselves as part of the astronomy community in a way that inspires lifelong engagement in astronomy either through the education and profession or through personal engagements and public support of astronomy.

These goals can be achieved by creating an environment that supports:

  • Communication between teachers, students and researchers;
  • Participation in common projects;
  • Application of the scientific method;
  • Improvement of the scientific literacy.

As a by product of the project we hope to have joint communities of students from all participating countries collaborating in future events.

The Galileo Students Program has the potential to develop a completely scalable online infrastructure that allows a global community of students to collaborate on science events and activities. This infrastructure will support distance learning opportunities for middle and high school level students. Project evaluation will engage education researchers (Vera Monteiro and Pamela Gay are both involved). Project activities will build on existing curriculum evaluation programs in NASA Wavelength and Open Discovery Space. This program works within existing, International Year of Astronomy related, collaborations, and will support them with new content while relying on their existing networks.

Building on existing infrastructure is key. Galileo Students is part of a network that includes: Galileo Mobile, a project to bring astronomy education to and teacher training to remote corners of the globe; and Galileo Teachers, which certifies teachers as versed in astronomy content and inquiry-based teaching activities; and Galileo Schools that offer astronomy as part of the regular curricula. With Galileo Students, we seek to build on their lessons, and create a way for students to build relationships across borders that will show them that science knows no borders. This will be done through shared experiences – lectures and sky event observing – and by studying how factors like light pollution and ozone affect us globally and require international solutions. Students will be challenged to work together to study problems. These activities mirror what is experienced in professional astronomy, from the attendance of lectures to the global taking of data, and will prepare students to see the culture of astronomy as their culture.

While we can’t anticipate that all students in these programs will become professional astronomers as adults, we can foresee many being influenced to enter astronomy careers, and that the reminder will support the development of astronomy infrastructures in their countries.

Initial development of the Galileo Students Program is being done by a group of volunteers from CosmoQuest, Galileo Mobile, and Galileo Teachers, with all materials and evaluation being paid for through a grant from the International Astronomical Union’s Office for Astronomy Development.

Family Science

Science learning shouldn’t be restricted to educational audiences; learning isn’t just for classrooms and should only occur between teachers and students. Much of what children learn, the learn at home as they are mentored by parents. From building and operating trainsets, to building and flying kites, to even training the family dog together; parents and children can share experiences that led to both of them learning while the form tighter family relationships. CosmoQuest is one more avenue that families can go down together. From parents and children mapping out images together, to families gathering around the computer screen to watch star parties and educational videos, there is a myriad of ways that families can learn and do science together. Unfortunately, doing science as a family isn’t something generally found on the household “To Do” list, and it is important to hold family science nights that provide parents and children a structure to build on as the work to participate in science together. CosmoQuest partner InsightSTEM is influential in developing Family Science part of CosmoQuest.


While a lot of learning goes on outside of the classroom, there are many topics best learned from an expert in a more formal learning environment. While CosmoQuest isn’t in a position to teach accredited university classes, we do teach a variety of adult education short courses through our CosmoAcademy program. This program is run through our partner Astrosphere New Media Association and is directed by Dr. Matthew R Francis. Classes vary from intro to Stars to advanced topics in Image Processing. All classes are taught by experts at a cost that keeps the project self-sufficient while still making it accessible (the price is actually based off how much Pamela pays for horseback riding lessons and how much is charged for yoga at local studios). The tuition paid for this class is used to pay the instructors, to pay Matthew for his organizational work, a small amount goes to SIUE to pay for software and facilities (give unto Caesar and all that).

As we said, CosmoAcademy is not an accredited program. Our classes are strictly for pleasure and while our instructors are all trained to use best practices in teaching and you will learn a lot, you will not get college credit. If you want to work toward a university degree, we strongly recommend that you look into Swinburne Astronomy Online. They have been teaching online courses in Astronomy for roughly 15 years and you will get a great education.