How an Astrophotography course can make students learned citizens unafraid of approaching science

Astronomy is a particularly appropriate vehicle for teaching science to a wide audience. A case study published in the International Journal of STEM Education reports the results of an undergraduate course in astrophotography, designed to engage non-science majors in the natural sciences. And to address “mathematical anxiety”

Astronomy is a gateway into science. The concepts and questions it acknowledges create a sense of wonder and awe. Its biggest assets are the images produced with the advent of space telescopes, adaptive optics, and robotized missions. The important role played by image processing in increasing scientific understanding, led Mario A. De Leo–Winkler and colleagues from the Univerisity of California to organize an astrophotography course giving students a general overview of modern astronomy, and reviewing data reduction and image processing methods. The course was designed for undergraduate students mainly pursuing a major in social sciences, business, or arts, with the goal of offering a positive experience in the natural sciences, and address mathematical anxiety.

Mathematical anxiety, which is a feeling of tension and fear that accompanies math-related activities, say the authors of this recently published case study, is one of the main factors that threaten achievement and participation in the natural sciences, and erode the resource base for careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Two versions of the course were offered: the first one was part of two high-enrollment undergraduate courses, the “The Violent Universe” and “The History of the Universe,” designed for (but not limited to) students from non-science majors. Instructors made use of multiple resources to captivate their academically diverse and popular (up to 570 students) classes, covering a very wide range of themes in astronomy and physics, from the Big Bang to the fate of the Universe, the laws of motion, the nature of light, and fundamental universal forces. The second version was offered as an ignition seminar, specifically designed to “ignite” the minds of freshmen students by covering a variety of subjects from an interdisciplinary perspective.

De Leo–Winkler et al.

The results, conclude the authors, were encouraging: a majority of the students reported a better understanding of how cameras work (72.5%), how telescopes work (65%), and image processing methods (72%). They overwhelmingly (89%) considered the course a very good/excellent exercise in science, and 71% of them reported an increased interest in astronomy.

Astrophotography proved to be an excellent vehicle for teaching visually and experimentally, which are aids encouraged by a constructivist method of education.

In constructivism, learners are actively involved in the process of meaning and knowledge construction, building upon previous knowledge. The subjective nature of image processing allows instructors to place additional emphasis on the process, not the method.

In this kind of course authors highlighted, among others, the benefits of learning through interaction, placing emphasis on understanding scientific concepts rather than memorizing facts and information, and considering knowledge as dynamic and in constant change together with learning experiences.

Read through the full text of this brilliant report, which is completely open access, like all the other articles on the International Journal of STEM Education, addressing challenges and innovations in teaching and learning science.

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