Letter to the Department for Education

Following the release of the draft National Curriculum for science Key Stages 1 and 2 (PDF) on Monday, Stuart Lynn sparked some discussion on Twitter over problems with the wording in the notes and guidance for teachers in Year 4 (ages 8-9). The biggest issue is that they refer to constellations as clusters of stars. After a bit of discussion I suggested we be proactive and send our feedback to the Department for Education. Between us we drafted this email and I'll be sending it later today (2pm BST) if anyone wants to add their name to it.

Dear Sir/Madam,

We are astronomers with a strong interest in education and public outreach. On Monday 11th June we had the opportunity to read your draft National Curriculum for science Key Stages 1 and 2. We welcome the expanded notes for teachers connected to the Year 4 Programme of Study for "Earth and space" but note that they contain some inaccuracies and misleading statements.

We suggest the following changes:

  1. The most significant problem is in paragraph 181:

    "Identifiable clusters of stars are called constellations."

    We feel there is potential for confusion over the use of "cluster of stars". A cluster implies a close group. Star clusters - close groups of stars that formed from the same original gas cloud - do exist but are very different objects to constellations. Constellations are simply patterns of bright stars in the sky as seen from our point of view here on Earth. There is no physical relationship between the stars in a constellation, which can be at widely different distances from the Earth. A suggested change would be:

    "Identifiable patterns of bright stars are called constellations."

  2. In paragraph 184:

    "making an approximately scale model of the Sun, Moon and Earth in the playground, using a beach ball for the Sun, a football for the Earth and a table tennis ball for the Moon; setting up the distances to demonstrate that the Moon and Sun look the same size from Earth, despite being vastly different in size."

    This might be overloading the analogy. It does show that the Moon and Sun are at different distances but using incorrectly scaled objects may lead to misconceptions about the relative sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon. It may be clearer if the demonstration of eclipses was done as a separate demo to the size/distance scale of the Earth-Moon-Sun, as the suggested scale is not quite accurate. On a standard school playing field approximate sizes would be: Sun 1m, Earth 1cm (at 100m from the Sun), Moon 3mm (at 30cm from the Earth). Suggested objects for such an exercise would be: a Hula Hoop for the Sun, a marble for Earth, and a peppercorn for the Moon.

  3. In paragraph 181:

    "Constellations that pupils might be expected to recognise and name include: Orion (The Hunter); Ursa Major (Great Bear, whose seven brightest stars form the Plough); and Ursa Minor (Lesser Bear)."

    Although the constellation of Ursa Minor (The Little Bear) contains the North Star (Polaris), it is actually a fairly faint constellation that may be difficult for many to see. A better suggestion would be the constellation of Cassiopeia as it is easier to see and is always above the horizon as seen from the UK.

  4. A suggested change would be:

    "Constellations that pupils might be expected to recognise and name include: Orion (The Hunter); Ursa Major (The Great Bear, whose seven brightest stars form The Plough); and Cassiopeia."

  5. In paragraph 181:

    "The position of stars is fixed relative to each other, although they appear to move across the sky (in a similar way to the Sun during the day)."

    Over a human lifetime there is very little change in their apparent positions relative to each other however over much longer periods the stars do change their positions.
    Perhaps "The stars appear to move across the sky as the Earth rotates, just as the Sun does during the day." would be a better phrasing.
    Update 11:24 BST (change suggested by Niall in comments below Perhaps "From day to day, year to year, stars do not appear to change position relative to each other. They rise and set due to the rotation of the Earth, much like the Sun."

  6. In paragraph 181:

    "The star at the centre of our solar system is one of millions of stars in the galaxy called the Milky Way."

    There are roughly 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way so "millions" should be replaced with "thousands of millions" or "billions".

  7. In paragraph 176:

    "the Moon moves around the Earth, taking 28 days to do so."

    There are two periods for the Moon and neither are 28 days. However, the reasons are far beyond the scope of primary education. We suggest a note for teachers be added with regards this point:

    "For teacher information, the Moon takes 27.3 days to orbit the Earth once as compared to the stars. The interval between the Moon being at the same phase is longer - 29.5 days - because the Earth and Moon are also orbiting the Sun."

We would be happy to discuss this further should that be useful.

With regards,

Stuart Lowe, Stuart Lynn, Eli Bressert, Olivia Johnson & Chris North

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 15th Jun 2012 (10:47 BST) | Permalink

Aldebaran the Hunter

Today I was asked to write up a blog post about an African sky story I picked up from my visit to the South African Astronomical Observatory back in 2003. I like collecting new stories about the sky particularly those that aren't from the Greek/Roman tradition. It adds some variety and shows that it wasn't just the Greeks and Romans who looked up and made stories about the sky.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin...

For the African bushmen the star Aldebaran (in Taurus) was a hunter. He was married to the daughters of the sky god (the Seven Sisters/Pleiades). One day, Aldebaran's hungry wives demanded that he go out hunting and told him he better not return empty handed. Being a confident hunter he set out with his bow and his only arrow. It was a long hot day and he seemed to be out of luck. Eventually he spotted three zebras (the stars that make up Orion's belt) grazing in a line. He took out his bow and took aim at the middle zebra. Despite his confidence, his arrow overshot and landed on the far side of the zebras (making the sword of Orion). Just as he was going to retrieve his arrow for a second shot, he noticed that the zebras (and his arrow) were now being watched by a large, golden-haired lion (Betelgeuse). With the lion watching, Aldebaran was too afraid to get to his arrow. He was so ashamed that he hadn't managed to catch anything for dinner that he couldn't return home to his wives. He has remained out in the cold of the night sky ever since.

After telling this story I like to point out that the red giant star Betelgeuse will eventually explode as a supernova and fade from view. At that point the bushmen might update the story to say that the lion roared loudly and returned to its pride allowing Aldebaran to finally retrieve his arrow.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 14th Jun 2012 (23:30 BST) | Permalink

Astronomy in the UK Curriculum

In the UK (see footnote) we have national curricula for all state schools. These are nationally defined statements of the minimum that children should learn in each year of school from age 5 - 16. After news organisations got a sneak preview over the weekend, the official draft for the next version of the curriculum (see footnote) was released this morning.

Yesterday The Guardian had an article that stated that there was to be less emphasis on the scientific method, fewer experiments, and more emphasis on cataloging things. I retweeted that article last night and was told by the Department for Education that it wasn't true. I see that that article has since been altered and doesn't say the things I took issue with yesterday. Presumably the draft curriculum that the Guardian saw has changed over the weekend. Either that or they just made stuff up.

With the "actual" drafts published for review, we can now see what has changed. In terms of astronomy and space in primary school, the majority is taught in year 4 (ages 8-9). Below is what the current curriculum includes for year 4:

The Earth and beyond

4. Pupils should be taught:

The Sun, Earth and Moon

  1. that the Sun, Earth and Moon are approximately spherical

Periodic changes

  1. how the position of the Sun appears to change during the day, and how shadows change as this happens

  2. how day and night are related to the spin of the Earth on its own axis

  3. that the Earth orbits the Sun once each year, and that the Moon takes approximately 28 days to orbit the Earth.

The new draft curriculum is:

Earth and space

Pupils should be taught to:

  • explain that the Sun is at the centre of our solar system and that the Sun, Earth and Moon are approximately spherical [173]

  • explain that the Sun is one of a great many stars in the galaxy called the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is one of a vast number of galaxies in the universe [174]

  • explain that there are other planets around distant stars, and name some constellations, as observed by Earth [175]

  • explain that the Earth moves around the Sun, taking one year to do so; that the Moon moves around the Earth, taking 28 days to do so; and that the Earth revolves, taking one day [176]

  • identify the four seasons and the regular changes in sunlight and weather associated with them in the UK.

What has changed? They've added an explicit statement about the Solar System being heliocentric, knowledge of galaxies and exoplanets. They've removed the explicit part about how shadows change during the day although the associated notes do suggest making a sundial.

The notes for the draft curriculum do mention the 8 planets (despite not being explicitly in the existing curriculum they are usually taught by teachers anyway), suggests that pupils be able to recognise some constellations, and says that the biographies of Galileo and Copernicus be taught.

Aside from space/astronomy, I spotted that the draft curriculum includes mention of Darwin 6 times. That makes for an interesting comparison with some US state curricula. I also note that their longer list of suggestions for biographies includes no female scientists. I hope they fix that pretty sharpish.

Footnote: for the sake of brevity I said the UK. Actually this is the National Curriculum for England & Wales as Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate education systems. To make things even more complicated, the Welsh Assembly also has more control over Welsh education than in times past so this may not apply to Wales either.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 11th Jun 2012 (13:33 BST) | Permalink

Transit of Venus 2012

Eight years ago on 8th June 2004 I was lucky enough to see the transit of Venus from Jodrell Bank Observatory. The website I made for that is still around. Over the next few hours we'll have another transit of Venus - the last until 2117!

The transit will be viewable from many places on Earth. If you don't have a view of the Sun from where you are (clouds or the planet getting in the way), there are plenty of live feeds online:

If you decide to view it in real life remember to always use safe solar filters or a proper solar telescope. Don't look at the Sun without protection.

The transit was important, historically, for measuring the Astronomical Unit via the parallax method. This year you can recreate those historical measurements by submitting your own timings via a phone app or posting a tweet.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 05th Jun 2012 (21:33 BST) | Permalink

Double Hubble?

I happened to glance at Twitter this afternoon and saw a tweet from Alberto Conti (of the Space Telescope Science Institute) about the announcement that NASA has been "given" two Hubble-sized telescopes. According to articles in the New York Times and Washington Post, the US National Reconnaissance Office decided it no longer needed them (for looking down) and offered them to the space agency for astronomy. Andy Lawrence points out that one of these would be perfect for WFIRST.

The two telescopes appear to be just that; telescopes. They have no astronomical instruments and are on the ground. To use them NASA will have to build instruments, launch them, and support operations. All those things cost quite a bit of money so I'm not sure how this sits in NASA's squeezed budget. You've got to hope that other existing projects aren't cut to make way for these gifts.

One quote in the Washington Post article that I don't understand was the claim by David Spergel that the telescopes "will have 100 times the resolving power of the Hubble". They are the same diameter as Hubble so I don't know where that extra resolving power would come from. Perhaps it is a misquoted reference to their larger field-of-view than Hubble. I don't think they're supposed to be working as a 250m baseline optical interferometer (although that would be very cool).

Update 17:55 BST: Thanks to Mark Stacey, I've seen that the Washington Post have very quickly corrected their article so it now says "100 times the field of view of the Hubble". I'm impressed that a newspaper corrected itself so promptly. Mind you, I'm used to British papers taking rather longer.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 04th Jun 2012 (17:34 BST) | Permalink
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