An Astronomy Frontier Where Boundaries Dissolve

Roy Gould, Education Analyst (Ret.), Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

There's an old saying that interesting things happen at boundaries:  Where the land meets the ocean, great seaports arise. Where nation borders nation, new cultures and languages arise. And at the thin boundary where earth meets sky, life emerges. 

But the search for life on other worlds — now the most exciting frontier in astronomy — is rapidly dissolving traditional boundaries of science. Biologists, chemists and physicists are working together with astronomers and geologists as a global team, intent on finding the first evidence for life among the thousands of solar systems that have recently been discovered. It is an area that is proving enormously useful for science education — yet one that also raises thorny questions about the future of teaching and learning. 

A key benefit is that everyone can participate. Thanks to a variety of projects funded by the NSF DRK-12 program over the past decade, teachers and students in thousands of classrooms have been using online telescopes to detect exoplanets and to assemble a simple portrait of their alien world, including its size and distance from its star.  Using authentic spectral data of a planet's atmosphere, students can begin to look for simple molecules that might be evidence for life. These projects require students to apply basic concepts in physical and biological science. They are an example of "inverting the pyramid," i.e., beginning with big questions that students already own, and then using those questions to motivate and organize the relevant basic concepts. (Otherwise, as Shirley Tilghman pointed out, a student may learn all the basic concepts but never get to the top of the pyramid, to the big questions that got them interested in science in the first place!)

There are significant challenges to this approach, however. For one thing, high-stakes statewide exams do not easily accommodate interdisciplinary learning or current science. For example, if you download the last 80 years of NY State Regents exams in physics, you'll find them virtually identical; we teach to the existing tests. Remarkably, the recent physics and earth science exams do not mention renewable energy, or use the term climate change. Since every exam is in part an advertisement — a message to students about what is important and what the subject is about — it seems reasonable that our assessments should reflect at least some of the verve and scope of current science.

A related challenge is that the search for life on other worlds is in essence a narrative, a wonderful story with a human dimension. The quest is not only about science; it is about nature and our relation to it. As the 17th-century physicist Gottfried Leibniz put it, understanding the physical world requires two parts, "which interpenetrate without confusing or interfering with each other." There is the part "according to which everything can be explained mechanically," i.e. as cause and effect, moment to moment. This is what exams typically address. But there is a second part that looks at nature globally, that looks at connections and meaning; today we might call this "story," but Leibniz called it "the realm of wisdom." Charles Darwin echoed a similar sentiment. Can we find better ways to honor and measure both aspects of understanding?

Astronomy remains an elective, of course, even as the quest to explore our solar system — and alien worlds, life, and black holes — captures our students' imagination far more than does, say, Coulomb's Law. But if we can find ways to welcome a wide range of students' personal aspirations in all of our science curricula, we might then achieve a classroom as free of boundaries as the universe itself!


Related Reading

Gould, R., S. Sunbury, R. Krumhansl. 2012. Using online telescopes to explore exoplanets from the physics classroom. American Journal of Physics.  80, 445 (2012); https://doi.org/10.1119/1.3671072

Gould, R., S. Sunbury and M. Dussault. 2014. In praise of messy data. The Science Teacher. Oct. 10.

"Princeton president advocates inversion of science education," Harvard Crimson, Nov. 14, 2012, retrieved at: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/11/14/shirley-tilghman-science-e...

McDonough, J. K. 2009. Leibniz on natural teleology and the laws of optics. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. LXXVIII No. 3, May.

D. Ibbett, R. Gould. 2019. Discovering exoplanets and Exoplanetary Music. SETI Institute Podcast, Oct. 21. Retrieved from:  bigpicturescience.org/segment/roy-gould-discovering-exoplanets

Gould, R. 2018. Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA