Astronomy From the Ground Up

October 28th, 2008

An interview with Dennis Schatz, Senior Vice President for Strategic Programs, Pacific Science Center:
Program advisor and developer for AFGU.

Transcription of Interview with Dennis Schatz

Astronomy from the Ground Up goes way back to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, which was to serve educators and educators broadly, so both informal and formal. We weren’t serving the smaller institutions, nature centers, that sort of thing. And so Astronomy from the Ground Up came from a need to serve these rural isolated places.

And the big question was, can you get away without doing face-to-face workshops? ‘Cause that’s the way we’d always done workshops. And so the model was: let’s study how a totally online workshop would compare to a face to face. And that’s really what ultimately became Astronomy from the Ground Up. It worked very well. And the people who decided to take it online actually stayed as part of the online professional learning community more than the people who went to face-to-face. They’d go to face-to-face and it was hard to get them to start having a conversation online, where the people who were online to begin with, I think, were much better at staying online.

Each week was a different topic; you had a number of activities, you had a video conference that related around that, and they would share online their results. If you came onto [the site] as a participant, one of the obligations you had was to go back and bring another person into the fold, so it had a multiplier effect to it.

The nature centers were really an audience we weren’t getting before. The people tended to have a background in environmental education, biology, or they wanted to do something in astronomy but they don’t have the background. This was an easy way to get some background and some great activities to do with people.

So you have to meet the context of the learning environment too. Clearly if you’ve got people coming and they’re just off to a trail and you’re doing something with a telescope to look at sunspots, maybe all that you can do, you just fascinate them about sunspots, so hopefully they’ll go back. And that’s actually one of the things that, that’s even probably the most fundamental, it’s not that they learn some key scientific concept, it’s that they get excited about wanting to learn more, so that after they’ve been with you for two hours, they’ll want to go off and learn on their own. ‘Cause if you get them to learn on their own, you’ve captured them.

If you think about some of the things that are most popular with people, so: dinosaurs. Whales are the same way. You don’t really get to go see whales typically. Astronomy’s the same way. There’s these huge numbers, huge distances, unbelievably beautiful objects that you can hardly fathom. And I think it’s that aspect of astronomy that engages everybody. And in some ways, little kids (I like to think) graduate from dinosaurs and, when they get older, astronomy is the next logical point at which they get totally enthralled. What are these things? What do they tell us about the universe? About ourselves? The whole search for extraterrestrial intelligence or life? It’s just fascinating to people.

Astronomy from the Ground Up was developed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in collaboration with the Association of Science-Technology Centers and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, with support from the National Science Foundation (#0451933).

Additional Resources

About AFGU
AFGU online community
AFGU on Flickr