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Gifts to the Future

Amateur astronomy can change lives.
Hester_Jeff
You amateur astronomers out there are an odd lot. (I get to say that because I started out as an amateur myself.) Think about it. You dump tons of time and money into telescopes, cameras, and the like. Every chance you get, you head off into the hinterland where you sit up all night, freezing your keister, and stare into an eyepiece to catch a glance of some ghostly apparition. Your family thinks you are nuts. Aren’t the spectacular pictures on Google Images enough?

Of course they aren’t! Astronomy is a passion, and that Messier collection means something. I understand that. But where did your passion come from? What got you hooked? I’m going to hazard a guess that it didn’t have much to do with a classroom sage on a stage. Don’t get me wrong, classrooms are important. After a quarter-century of teaching, at least I hope they are. But as a student, my own attitudes and interests had more impact on what I got out of a class than anything a teacher or professor said. Experiences are what matter.

Since time immemorial, university faculty members have bemoaned the “sorry state of affairs with today’s students.” How is it possible, we astronomy professors ask, that after years of math classes, students can’t figure out a simple inverse-square law? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that maybe those thousand hours or so sitting in math classrooms could have been better spent. Granted, if you don’t own a tool, you can’t use it. But if you don’t need a tool for something you care about, why bother to pick it up?

None of this surprises teachers who are worth their salt. When counseling undergraduates, I made it a point to discuss what college is about: “You aren’t really here to get a job or even a degree. You certainly aren’t here to collect A’s, or at least I hope not. What you are here for is to start becoming who you will be for the rest of your life!” To quote Plutarch (a.d. 46–120): “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.”

ASYJH0518_01copy
A beautiful deep-sky object like the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), viewed at a star paty with a moderate-size telescope, can spark people to see the universe in a new way. Just one telescopic look has altered the future of many young folks.
Bob Fera

What is new is a growing understanding of what’s going on behind the curtain as we learn, deep inside our brains. The sum total of your life’s experiences blends together into your own unique internal model of the world, different from that of any other person. Your brain uses that ever-changing internal model to construct the predictions and simulations that become your conscious reality. That internal model is what largely makes you you.

It’s good that we are coming to better understand this stuff, because the times, they are a-changing. Watch an IBM Watson commercial, catch a self-driving cab, or read a news story written by a computer. Day after day, more and more jobs are being taken over by new and rapidly evolving technologies. Today’s student won’t have a single career; she will likely have dozens of job titles, most of which have yet to be invented. The future doesn’t need workers who have been trained to put nut B on bolt A. The future needs interesting, capable, creative, curious individuals shaped by diverse and wide-ranging experiences.

Schools are beginning to catch up with this need. “Project Based Learning” is fancy jargon for curriculum that is built not around chapters in textbooks, but around authentic, engaging, and complex questions, problems, and challenges. It is messy, creative, collaborative, draws on individual strengths, and always produces something to show for the effort. More than just another fad, Project Based Learning is a real world approach to education that works with rather than against how our brains are wired. 

This is where you come in. I’ve known many amateur astronomers and spoken to countless clubs and gatherings over the years. You are an interesting and passionate lot with a great deal to offer. Cool science, hands-on hardware, recording and working with data, star parties, questions that have intrigued humankind for millennia — your hobby is tailor-made for Project Based Learning. Places like the Buck Institute for Education and Edutopia (the George Lucas Educational Foundation) have what you need to get started. Your chance to help shape the future might be as close as a phone call from your club to a nearby school.

You are the sorts of people whose passion inspires. I know, because when I was a kid, you inspired me. Very few of the students you work with will go on to become astronomers. But what you share will become a part of who those students are, how they think, and what they do for the rest of their lives. They might just change the way that you experience the world, too.

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