Lunar and Planetary Institute

Conferences of Interest
LPI Education and Public Outreach
Pre-Service Education Working Group

AAS 2007

How Astronomers Can Help Prepare Future Teachers
A poster at AAS, Seattle, January 2007

Christine Shupla, Lunar and Planetary Institute
Laurie Ruberg, CET, Wheeling Jesuit University
T. F. Slater, University of Arizona CAPER Team
Greg Schultz, Center for Science Education, UC Berkeley

We are members of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Pre-Service Education Working Group, a community of scientists, space science educators, NASA education specialists, and teacher educators who are interested in finding ways to help in the science preparation of future teachers. We conducted a survey to better understand the role and needs for astronomy in preparing future teachers. The survey, existing research, and discussions with faculty and organizations responsible for preparing teachers have discerned a variety of opportunities for astronomers to effect change in the future classroom teacher.

National studies have recommended several directions for improving K–12 science education. These include improving science content training, integrating inquiry throughout student learning, and incorporating state and national science standards-based instruction into classrooms.(1,2,3) How can astronomers help?

18% of undergraduates may become classroom teachers.(4) Over a 20 year career, each will reach 500 to 2500 students. What can you do to help prepare them?

According to Blueprints Online, an outgrowth of AAAS’s Project 2061:
Approximately 20% of middle school science teachers have a major in science or science education and about 30% have a major or minor in one of these fields.

68% of a group of 50 elementary education majors had alternative or incomplete conceptions on the causes of day and night.(5)


Astronomy in the K–12 Classroom
Classroom teachers are expected to teach a variety of astronomical topics, yet research indicates that most undergraduates do not have a scientific understanding of these topics, and there is widespread misunderstanding as to the nature of science. Future teachers need exposure to these subjects in their college science courses.

Astronomy Science Education Standards in K–12
In the United States, state and national standards dictate what teachers teach, and on what students are tested.  Astronomy, the nature of science, and inquiry are present in these science standards.

    •   National Science Education Standards(6,7,8) include:
      • Inquiry and the nature of science
      • The patterns of movement of objects in the sky, and the motions of objects in our Solar System (including daily motion, seasons, phases, and eclipses)
      • The position of Earth in the Solar System and characteristics of the Solar System
      • Gravity’s role in the motion of the planets and tides
      • Characteristics of the Sun and its energy
      • The formation of Earth and the Solar System
      • The Big Bang theory
      • Formation of stars and galaxies
      • The role of stars in generating elements
    •   State Science Education Standards(9):
      • Over 45 of the 50 states included: Sun properties, Moon properties, Earth tilt or seasons, Moon phases, and the planets or our Solar System.
      • A majority of states also included inner/ outer planet characteristics, the motion of the Sun, Moon, and stars in the sky, Earth’s rotation, planetary revolution, the Earth’s position in the Solar System, gravity, solar/lunar eclipses, and the relationship between the Moon and tides.

Understanding of Astronomy by Future Teachers
Research indicates that without targeted instruction, most future teachers are likely to have a poor understanding of the astronomy content present on state and national standards.

  • Only 61% of elementary teachers feel they are very qualified to teach science; they feel much more qualified to teach English and math.(10)
  • 71% of all teachers indicate they feel they are only somewhat, a little, or not at all science literate(10)
  • Science is cited by the most teachers (63%) as the subject they wish have been given more emphasis during their college preparation.(10)

Like most of the public, future teachers hold astronomical misconceptions.

  • In Atwood & Atwood (1996)(11)) only 1 out of 49 elementary education majors was able to demonstrate an accurate understanding of the seasons on a written test and modeling seasons in an interview. 
  • Trundle, Atwood, & Christopher (2002)(12) determined in a study of 78 elementary education majors that without inquiry instruction, they were likely to hold alternative conceptions on the cause of moon phases. 96% held incomplete scientific understanding before instruction, while 68% held scientific understanding after inquiry instruction.

The Need for Space Science for Future Teachers
Members of the Pre-Service Education Working Group conducted a small national survey of teacher educators, including faculty from both science and education departments.  Among other things, the survey inquired whether more astronomy and planetary science in the curriculum would be beneficial, and why or why not. Forty (71%) of the responses were an unqualified yes. 
Reasons included:

  • classroom teachers need the content (for their own exams, for the standards, because they haven’t received it),
  • because of the pervasive misconceptions in space science
  • the need for astronomy in an inquiry-based course setting, and
  • space science provides a richer understanding of science or an interdisciplinary aspect of science or is engaging or connects to current events and exploration. 

Seven (17%) of the respondents said no;

  • they were already providing enough opportunities to learn astronomy and planetary science
  •  there was not enough time in the curriculum to add more content
  • one stated that astronomy is not a true science and is not offered at the university level. 

Eleven (11%) of the responses lacked a simple affirmative or negative; their statements included some of the earlier themes.

Teaching Inquiry
Research has shown that effective teaching practices need to be modeled--future teachers need to be taught a subject the way they will be teaching it in their classrooms. In order to understand how to teach the nature of science, future teachers need to be taught science in college as inquiry-based, with activities that model the nature of investigation.(13,14,15) These need to be included in introductory science classes — for many future teachers, those are the only science classes they will ever receive.

The Role of Inquiry in Undergraduate Science Courses
Science learning experiences for teachers must incorporate understanding science through inquiry.(13)

  • Teachers rely far more on the teaching styles they have experienced as learners than on the theory or even the practical knowledge they encounter in teacher education programs.(14)
  • Future secondary teachers who are successful science majors experience lecture approaches in college, leading them to (falsely) believe that lectures are effective for all students. Teacher educators must be concerned with preparing future teachers to implement inquiry-based learning by exposing them to teaching styles that support inquiry.(15)

Defining “Inquiry”
All scientists are involved in scientific inquiry on a regular basis — scientific research is “inquiry.”  According to the National Science Education Standards, scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. 

In general, “authentic” inquiry has the following elements

    •  Addresses relevant / real world issues on natural phenomena 
    •  Is relevant to student lives
    •  Engages students in answerable questions
    •  Requires collecting / organizing evidence
    •  Includes students communicating / defending conclusions
    • Further research on the nature of inquiry is available by the National Research Council and American Association for the Advancement of Science.(16,17,18)

Taking Inquiry the Next Step – Research Experiences for Teachers
Teachers (particularly those in K–8) may never have experienced the process of science firsthand — and yet they are responsible for facilitating their students’ science experiences. How can they bring authentic science experiences into the classroom with such limited exposure?

According to the evaluation on NSF’s Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program(22), participation in the RET Program served to

  • increase almost all participants’ science knowledge base and awareness of science research issues
  • increase their motivation to find ways to improve student learning
  • increase their ability to convey the excitement of science to students

More than 80% of the survey respondents reported that the research experience had a positive effect on their classroom students, such as

  • increased awareness of science career options
  • created more positive attitudes about science subjects in general, and
  • created more interest in the respondent’s classes

Becoming Partners in Teacher Preparation
By Taking Action!
There is a widely-recognized national crisis in science education, and scientists will be an important part of the solution.(19,20) Here’s how you can help:

In Your Science Courses:

  • Learn about your state science education standards for astronomy and help your student teachers master that material.
  • Integrate more inquiry in your teaching (for example, have your students make observations of the lunar phases over a couple of months and investigate potential reasons for the changes) because experiencing inquiry is fundamental to understanding the nature of science(21)
  • Design inquiry-based science courses specifically for future teachers
  • Offer science content courses and workshop series for classroom teachers on evenings and weekends when teachers can attend

Collaborate with Educators
Working with teacher educators and teachers will create a valuable partnership, enabling you to share your science expertise, connections to other scientists and department chairs, and access to technology and equipment and current research, while providing you with insight into the educational challenges, needs, and methods.

  • Get to know your colleagues in the Education Department and learn about how they are preparing future teachers
  • Seek out and provide meaningful support (time) to pre-existing local and regional science education organizations already working in your area
  • Facilitate access to laboratory equipment and work space, computing facilities, libraries, and other resources for teachers and future teachers
  • Create and advertise a teacher-friendly equipment and classroom demonstration “loaner” program using pre-existing departmental resources
  • Develop a collaborative recruitment/advising plan with the College of Education to provide teacher certification options for undergraduate science majors
  • Collaborate with Education faculty to co-teach a course, such as a science course for education majors, or a science methods course
  • Support a teachers’ professional conference with your pre-existing state-wide science teachers association to host at your institution, and find additional scientist-contributors
  • Consider partnering with faculty who are teaching education, or individuals who conduct programs to train teachers, for E/PO grants
  • Create an institute for science and education faculty, such as the CSU-NASA Education Collaborative.

Involve Future Teachers in Internships, Research or Mentoring Projects    
Consider Education majors when hiring undergraduate assistants. Through science research experiences, future teachers build their skills of science and science teaching, maintain currency in the ever evolving disciplines of science and science teaching, and network to build working relationships with the science community.

To broaden science learning opportunities within and beyond the classroom, members of the scientific community can be recruited to participate in K–12 education as observers, guest speakers, tutors, and consultants. Scientists will need to become aware of the needs of teachers and students, but in the long run, their participation can enrich college and university classrooms and help K–12 teachers and scientists better understand each other.(23)

Contact Us!
References and Resources and Contacts
Can be found at


  1. Morrell, P. D.,  & Carroll, J. B. 2003, An extended examination of preservice elementary teachers' science teaching self-efficacy. School Science and Mathematics.
  2. Plourde, L. A. 2002,. The influence of student teaching on preservice elementary teachers' science self-efficacy and outcome expectancy beliefs. Journal of Instructional Psychology.
  3. Report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, 2004
  4. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 2003, A Descriptive Summary of 1999–2000 Bachelor’s Degree Recipients 1 Year Later With an Analysis of Time to Degree, 124
  5. Atwood, V., & Atwood, R. 1995, “Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Conceptions of What Causes Night and Day,” School Science and Mathematics, Volume 95(6).

Astronomy in the K-12 Classroom

  1. National Research Council (NRC) 1996, National Science Education Standards,. (Washington, DC: National Academy Press) Chapter 6: Science Content Standards.
  2. Adams, J.P. & Slater, T.F. 2000, Astronomy in the National Science Education StandardsJournal of Geoscience Education, 48(1), 39-45.
  3. Slater, T. F. 2000, Astronomy Concepts in the Project 2061 Benchmarks.   The Physics Teacher, 38(9), 538–540.
  4. Palen, S., & Proctor, A. 2006, “Astronomy in the K-8 Core Curriculum: A Survey of State Requirements Nationwide,” Astronomy Education Review, 5(1), Volume 5:23-35, 2006 
  5. Market Research Institute, 2004,  Bayer Corporation.
  6. Atwood, V. & Atwood, R.  1996, “Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Conceptions of the Causes of Seasons,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 33, No. 5 pp.553–563.
  7. Trundle, K., Atwood, R., & Christopher, J.  2002, “Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Conceptions of Moon Phases before and after Instruction,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 39, No. 7, pp. 633–658.

Teaching Inquiry

  1. National Research Council (NRC), 1996, National Science Education Standards: Standards for Professional Development for Teachers of Science, National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press)
  2. Grossman, J. H. 1991, Improving the quality of college teaching. Performance and Instruction, 30(3), 24-27
  3. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1998, Blueprints On-Line Ch. 9 Teacher Education (New York : Oxford University Press )
  4. National Research Council (NRC) (2000) Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning Committee on Development of an Addendum to the National Science Education Standards on Scientific Inquiry, Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education.
  5. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (2000) Inquiring into Inquiry Learning and Teaching in Science,  Ed. J. Minstrell and E. H. van Zee. 
  6. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 1993, Benchmarks For Science Literacy.  (New York : Oxford University Press) Ch.1, Section B

Becoming Partners in Teacher Preparation By Taking Action!

  1. National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, 2000, Before It's Too Late
  2. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1998, Blueprints On-Line Ch. 9 Teacher Education (New York : Oxford University Press )
  3. National Research Council (NRC), 1996, National Science Education Standards: Standards for Professional Development for Teachers of Science, National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press)
  4. SRI International, 2005,  Evaluation of the Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) Program
  5. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1998, Blueprints On-Line Ch. 9 Teacher Education (New York : Oxford University Press )


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 1993) Benchmarks For Science Literacy (New York : Oxford University Press).

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 1998, Blueprints for Reform (New York : Oxford University Press). 

National Research Council (NRC), 1996, National Science Education Standards, National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment,

National Science Teachers Association, 2006, Handbook of College Science Teaching NSTA Press.

Organizations for Partnerships and Resources: