Space education — It’s about time

  • Swetha Srinivasan

Guided by Tafheem Masudi and Sukant Khurana

Space- a mind-boggling, awe inspiring, vast ocean of mysterious, beautiful and complex structures. Man has always taken efforts to understand the cosmos better; ancient civilizations have devoted a lot of infrastructure, manpower and time to do so. Ruins, writings and art all speak of the same. We are now gathering speed in this pursuit. With the advancement of technology, there’s something new discovered or observed on a daily basis. Unfortunately, however, most of these discoveries don’t get the recognition and appreciation they deserve, and that is also because ‘Space’, ‘Cosmos’ etc. don’t have direct implications in our day to day life. Or so people think, and what they don’t realize is that their shot is way off the mark.

Picture Courtesy: www.wired.com

While we are taught biology, chemistry, mathematics, history, physics, geography etc. in school, we aren’t taught much about astronomy except for basic facts about the Solar System, the temperature of the Sun, Kepler’s laws and fission and fusion reactions in stars. These too, under other disciplines or topics in order to clarify some other idea introduced. Astronomy as a subject has never been touched upon, and hence, its not a very accessible topic for kids unless they do additional reading.

This should not be the case, space education must be considered as important as other disciplines. Astronomy today has evolved into an enormous, interdisciplinary field. Astrophysics, Cosmology, Cosmogony, Astrochemistry, Astrobiology, astrometry, Planetary Science, Archaeoastronomy are some of the subfields within astronomy (physics.byu.edu). Each of these subfields can be further divided into numerous specializations. And, there is no better time to focus on this than now.

Satellite communication (satcom) is a perfect example for ‘space meets daily life’. Radios, newspapers, television all require satcom. Starting 50 years ago with the launch of Telstar in 1962 and Syncom in 1963, satcom has continued to grow ever since. (ESA)

Syncom Picture Courtesy: Gunter’s Space Page

Whether we realize it or not, there are multiple satellites this very instant whizzing around Earth providing high speed internet, providing valuable service to the defense and military, providing us GPS services and many more luxuries that we seem to take for granted.

Space technologies are used to study both Earth and other cosmological objects. Monitoring the environment, studying global warming, predicting natural disasters are all undertaken by such space projects. The POES (Polar Operational Environmental Satellites), NASA’s project, is one such example (nasa.gov).

We are also realizing the inevitable truth that space is our future, that explorations to other planets might become a necessity. We have also found that numerous experiments that can never be performed on Earth naturally occur in the fabric of space. The colliding blackholes, which led to the discovery of gravitational waves are one such example (ligo.org).

Colliding blackholes Picture courtesy — Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory/Reuters

Private space companies have also seen a recent bloom- SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic are a few of the contenders in the new kind of space race. They are bustling with ideas ranging from reusable rockets, colonization of Mars, space tourism to asteroid mining (fastcompany.com). Though some of the ideas seem far-fetched as of now, one can never cross out all hopes. If anyone had any inkling of an idea of being able to communicate, share all forms of information with any other person, anywhere on Earth with the help of a tiny hand-held device a mere 50 years ago, that would have been a good futuristic science fiction story, nothing else.

We also know that the children of today are the future of tomorrow. Education is the most important factor in shaping a child’s future. Schooling is of utmost priority. The exposure they get at school is of unimaginable importance. And, all we have to do is put two and two together.

Acknowledging the importance of space education today and the importance of imparting students with the right knowledge, we clearly see that the need of the hour in this context is space education for children. Yes, astronomy must be taught to students as it is, and it should be incorporated into the curriculum.

Now, how can one impart such knowledge to kids?

Let’s first start with sparking an interest in the topic. It’s not very hard to do so, space is mysterious, its something we can’t observe very easily without the help of proficient devices and that makes it even more interesting.

Visual techniques are always the best possible methods of teaching.

Markets are flooded with space encyclopedias these days, they come in various levels. Basic encyclopedias have more pictures and a small gist of the science behind the phenomenon, and space is filled with beautiful structures. These serve as the fundamental tools to irk the interest of kids. They must be encouraged to try out such books. School libraries must facilitate such provisions.

Television shows like ‘Cosmos’ hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, documentaries on space and time by BBC, Discovery Channel, Nova hosted by renowned physicists like Michio Kaku, Brain Greene have made such complex topics accessible to everyone. One needn’t have a physics degree to understand what’s going on. It leaves one awestruck, pondering over what has been said. Parallel universes, wormholes, time travel… All seem so very interesting and make the viewer want to know more. In this digital age, when kids have unlimited access to all sorts of content, parents and teachers must encourage them to spend some time on such educational videos too, and these are the best options to spark interest.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Picture Courtesy: Twitter

This is something that can happen in tandem with the curriculum. To include the subject in the curriculum, for starters, the relevant chapters can be included under a separate section within the science text book- astronomy. Up until fifth grade, students will study the basics of the solar system, the different structures within it like planets, a star, asteroids.

Sixth grade onward, more complex topics must slowly be brought in. Lifecycles of stars, their classification would be a good start. That covers a lot of structures including planetary nebular, red giants, blue giants, black dwarfs, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. The big bang, CMB, astrometry can all be introduced.

As the student gains more and more knowledge, and equips himself/herself with more tools to understand the nuances of a topic, the curriculum must be so that we delve a bit deeper into the theoretical aspects of the various structures- black holes, quasars etc.

Simultaneously, imparting knowledge on the various works of different scientists should also be given importance.

By the time the student graduates out of school, he/she will have a sound knowledge of the basics of space and will know enough to decide whether they want to pursue astronomy in the future too. This early start will provide interested students with an enormous amount of time to figure out more of the mysteries of the universe.

To make this work, teachers must also be trained to present the wonderful topic in an interesting and understandable manner. Workshops and training camps will help in doing so.

Moreover, to quench the thirst of the highly interested students, more astronomy Olympiads, quizzes and science fairs must be conducted. This will aid in further growth of knowledge. Educational tours to planetariums, observatories must also be undertaken.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, ‘The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it. We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.’

Its about time we explore the universe to our fullest capabilities.

References

· https://www.fastcompany.com/3026685/the-worlds-top-10-most-innovative-companies-in-space

· https://www.ligo.org/science/Publication-NINJA2/index.php

· https://www.physics.byu.edu/faculty/christensen/Physics%20127/Figures/Astronomy%20and%20the%20Universe/Astronomy%20and%20Related%20Fields%20of%20Study.htm

· https://poes.gsfc.nasa.gov/

· https://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Telecommunications_Integrated_Applications/Telecommunications_satellites