Open Educational Resources for Astronomy

Last Spring I taught an introductory astronomy course for non-science majors. It was difficult and fun. One of the most difficult parts was inventing activities and homework to teach specific concepts. Sometimes my activities fell flat. Thankfully, I had access to a number of astronomy education resources: the textbook, a workbook full of in-class tutorials, and the professors in my department who had previously taught introductory astronomy.

Open educational resources are meant to serve in this capacity, especially for teachers and students without the money to buy expensive texts. Like open source software, open educational resources are publicly-licensed and distributed in a format that encourages improvement and evolution. For examples, check out the resources hosted by Wikiversity. This is a sister project of Wikipedia’s, providing learning materials and a wiki forum to edit and remix those materials. It’s great for teachers in all disciplines! And it hosts a lot of astronomy material. But like Wikipedia, it’s deep and wide. It’s easy to get lost. (“Wait, why am I reading about R2D2?”) And like articles on Wikipedia, the learning materials on Wikiversity vary in quality.

Today’s paper introduces a project called astroEDU. They’re aiming to make astronomy learning resources, like those you can find on Wikiversity, easier to find and of higher quality. To do this, the authors introduce a peer-review structure for education materials modeled on the one widely-accepted for scholarly research. Educators may submit a learning activity to the astroEDU website. The project is evaluated by two blind reviewers, an educator and an astronomer. It may go through revision, or it may be scrapped. If it’s not scrapped, it’s published on the website, and sister sites like Open Educational Resources Commons. The result is a simple, excellent lesson plan describing the learning goals, any objects you need to complete the activity, step by step instructions, and ideas to find out what your students learned.

Screenshot from "Star in a Box", an educational activity freely available at astroEDU.

Screenshot from “Star in a Box”, an educational activity available at astroEDU.

To the right is a screenshot from an example activity, “Star in a Box“, which won an award last year from the Community for Science Education in Europe. It uses a web-based simulation tool developed by the Las Cumbres Observatory. Students are directed to vary the initial mass of a model star and explore its evolution in the Hertzsprung-Russell plane. This is the kind of thing I could have used to supplement the textbook in my introductory astronomy course. And so could a high school teacher struggling along without any textbooks.

AstroEDU is targeted at primary and secondary school teachers. It was launched only a year ago, supported by the Inernational Astronomical Union’s Office for Astronomy Development. It may grow into a powerful tool for open educational resources, something like a peer-reviewed Wikiversity. If you are a professional astronomer or an educator, it looks like you can help by signing up as a volunteer reviewer.

About Brett Deaton

I'm a math and physics instructor at the University of Idaho and Washington State University. Before teaching, I worked with Matt Duez and the Spectral Einstein Code Collaboration (SpEC) to simulate hydrodynamics in strong gravity, and Gail McLaughlin and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics Center for the Evolution of the Elements to study neutrino oscillations around neutron star mergers.

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  1. Is there any mechanism to check the credentials of the reviewers? Seems like a lot of effort to verify that everyone is who they say they are manually, especially since there might need to be a lot of volunteer reviewers if the site takes off and lots of activities are uploaded. And is the evaluation on a pass/fail basis or more nuanced?

  2. What a neat idea! I’ve often had a surprising amount of difficulty finding astronomy resources online.

  3. This is very exciting. The need for good scientific information that is accessible to the public is very high. I think this and other organizations like WorldWide Telescope are doing a great job to advance this field.

  4. This is such a wonderful idea. I’m sure this will be helpful to countless educators and hopefully will further the study of science education, an incredibly important and yet incredibly under appreciated field. Do you predict that most of the resources for student activities will involve computer demonstrations or do you imagine there will be other activities that can be done with more traditional materials, say, for students/schools with limited access to computers?

  5. I love this! I would definitely appreciate a larger and more reliable database of astronomy resources as it is very easy to find questionable resources online from “experts” and for the public to be misled!

  6. This is fantastic. I’m sometimes skeptical of relying too heavily on technology for primary and secondary education (especially because not all students have access to the necessary resources) but in the case of astronomy, the field lends itself so heavily to technology that this kind of learning platform seems to make a lot of sense.


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