Why Amateur Astronomy Has Failed in Outreach with Our Youth

There was a wonderful letter in the Reflector magazine from the Astronomical League by League President John Goss.  Mr. Goss makes a wonderful appeal to reminding all of us of the wonder and questions that outreach brings to many people of various ages and especially to our youth.  In reading the letter I enjoyed Mr. Goss' themes and it got me thinking.  I have really backed off over the last two or three years on doing outreach, except at my local library.  As a professional educator which is my second career, my first a successful business career, with 12 years of education and 14 years of experience in education teaching, I have a strong and proven belief on why the current model of outreach is failing to attract both the youth and young people to our hobby, and what does work.

The current model of outreach is an outdated and almost extinct model of where a group of amateurs meet up, set up their telescopes at a publicized location and then show objects to the public as they rotate through the field of telescopes.  This is akin to the lecture demo model in education where the teacher lectures to their students from the front of the room and students are expected to take notes and learn.  The teacher is the holder of the information and dispenses it to them and the type of object is in the eyepiece, and looking. Okay, so what? How the hell does that attract new people to our hobby?  It doesn't. It is fun for an evening, people enjoying viewing, especially those that don't want to find and own a scope.  For those people and amateurs they have figured out that the best "GOTO" telescope is the one where someone else does the work and they get to see the view.

In education today there are several models of pedagogy used in the classroom to ensure that student engagement is high, so that their interest is high and that learning is high.  A quick story shared with me this week has to do with the superintendents of the local school districts meeting in a small school district here for a working breakfast to review how to improve student attendance. While right in that restaurant were several high school kids from across the street who should have been in class and were sloughing. The students were invited over and they shared when they want to be in class. "When the teacher has a lesson where we get to do stuff, where we get to learn by doing then I go." one of them shared.  We call it using constructivism, Bloom's Taxonomy where creating from learning is the highest form of learning.  Some call or use inquiry learning to promote student engagement and learning. The point that this student made so wonderfully is that the youth and young people today have grown up doing. They have taught themselves how to use computers and software, how to master video games, how to do many things we in our late 40's and beyond never learned until we were adults. To think we can capture them and rouse their interest in our hobby by simple sharing is to put down their abilities and intelligence.

One argument I see on a regular basis is that amateur astronomy is a middle age and older hobby. I don't buy it as I got into it in my early 30's.  I was exposed as a kid by my Dad and as a teen by some adults who were teachers. That peaked my interest and in my early 30's I got into the hobby at that point. As I have seen the youth and young people will get involved in the hobby and do what they want to do with it which is what this generation seems to do like the ones previous to it. They may not be a club officer or be largely involved outside of doing their own observing, but that is okay, they will be involved as much as they want to IF they are allowed to participate and contribute fully. Then you may just get a younger club officer or other contribution that is meaningful to them.

So what are the alternatives?  It has to be where students are engaged in the learning process. Teach students how to collimate a reflector, to align the Telrad with the eyepiece, and to look at the constellations, identify them and to star hop. Teach them how to use a scope with goto on it. Share with them how to identify the type of object, how to create an observing list, and to have studies what those objects are (before or after depending on your goal) and then be there to watch and observe as they go after and nail their lists. I have done this both in schools and at my local library for some time. I have a former student who graduated last June and for Christmas she wanted a solar filter for her 6 inch dob so she could take up solar viewing. She is 18 and has been viewing/observing since she was 12 as a result of this type of program. Think she is hooked for life though astronomy is just a hobby for her? Yep, her and about 12 other kids and about 8 families.

The problem with this model is that an amateur has to trust that kids can learn to use their equipment and be safe with it. We have to trust that as we are there scaffolding these wonderful new people that we can catch before they make a mistake, and fix it is they do. Outside of dropping something on a primary mirror of a dob, or jamming up a goto mount, there are very little things that someone operating a telescope can do that cannot be undone and fixed. The biggest problem I see though are two. First, amateurs have to be willing to give up control of the scope and what someone else is going after and focus on not what they want, but in helping someone else get what that person wants out of that session. That is hard with limited time for events, and observing and wanting to be in control of "YOUR" own equipment. Two, it takes social skills to interact and to teach, and yes, it does take skills to be an actual teacher and to interact with the public.  Some may be needing our help there.

That leads me to my final point here. IF a club or the League is serious about getting more younger people involved, I challenge both to getting some educators to share some basic teaching techniques and to having a part of your outreach events set up where people who have signed up in advance can meet in groups of no more than 4 to receive instruction on how to use a scope.  No matter what though, and there are many other ways this can be done and there are many other people who are trained in education in the field that can share, but this notion of just showing objects has to be supplemented with other outreach activities where the public can be trained how and be given the chance to use an actual telescope.  We will grab some now, plant a seed in others for later but we need to diversify how we are getting people interested by letting them do.  Lets be giddy about what we observe and be giddy in helping others to observe.


1 comment:

  1. I was 25 when I bought my first telescope (Orion Observer 70mm Altazimuth Refractor) and found that my interest was peaked in various degrees by a wide variety of factors. It was a whim and a general interest in space that led me to buying my first telescope. After having a telescope it was the awe of what could be seen (particularly M42, which was happened upon by chance) that led me to seek more information. Later, I began to collect books and maps which broadened my knowledge. Lastly, I and a friend of mine that I got hooked on amateur astronomy, attended a few new moon observing weekends with some of the astronomy clubs in our area. Of all these factors the astronomy club was the most disappointing experience.

    Although the few people we found to be interested (somewhat) in teaching us about equipment and viewing techniques taught us more than any online searches or forums, the general attitude seemed to be that we were bothering them or burdening them. At times we even felt we were intruding on a tightly knit clique of older guys with no interest in adding to their ranks. This whole experience led to us seeking new spots to go observing and to seek information on our own terms, and to shy away from clubs or groups.

    Overall, from my perspective, if the general educational system is doing their jobs there will always be a healthy sampling of younger people who have an interest in science and astronomy. The most important thing is pointing them in the right direction. If I, as an adult with a car and the ability to purchase my own equipment, have trouble getting knowledge from other, more experienced adults, how much more then would someone even younger have?

    I strive to share my passion and get really excited when a friend shows interest in what I do. If more people with years of experience under their belts are willing to impart their knowledge on those who are eager to accept it, I think there is no reason why backyard astronomy can't be a popular hobby for younger generations.

    Thanks for the blog, by the way, very informative and a great read.