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Astronomy Matters: One Woman’s Mission to Teach the Universe

What do robotic telescopes, high-altitude balloons, and the World Economic Forum have in common? You wouldn’t be wrong if you said technology, science, or STEM education. You wouldn’t be wrong if you said space education and the new generation of entrepreneurs striving to create jobs in a reimagined industry. But one unifying factor may surprise you: the demonstration of the necessity of critical thinking skills.


One teacher in California is on a mission to teach problem-solving and critical thinking through our oldest science: astronomy. “Space education is the great unifier,” says Christine Hirst Bernhardt, an astronomy professor at the College of the Canyons and science teacher in the William S. Hart School Union School District in Santa Clarita, California. “The study of the Universe and the stars has existed since humans gazed at the sky." "It’s the oldest science. It’s the only science inextricably intertwined with religion, and it’s the only science of which students have common experience. They’ve all looked up in curiosity at the moon and the stars. They haven’t all looked through a microscope.” Out of this innate desire and need to understand our place in the Universe, critical thinking skills were born and cultivated, and are now as much as ever a critical component of furthering that understanding.


Developing Critical Thinking Through Astronomy


Critical thinking matters not just for understanding that which fascinates us, but for the practical application of our knowledge to the world. In October of 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published the Future of Jobs Report, which confirmed that the most important skills students can develop to be employable are critical thinking and analysis. At the same time, in interviews of K–20 science educators conducted by Catapult X, an independent research firm specializing in science and STEM education, the top skills educators report that students have difficulty developing are problem-solving and critical thinking. Slooh's integrated curriculum for 4th grade to college challenges students to engage with STEM in innovative ways by combining experiential learning with analytical skills, creative problem-solving, and self-reflection. The collective experience of booking mission slots, peering through online telescopes, capturing images, and collecting observational data develops a growth mindset and rebuilds a collective connection to the night sky, whereby "it's a humbling experience for students to study the Earth and its place in the Universe, to realize how small we are and yet, what a huge impact we can have.”


Hirst Bernhardt, who also teaches teachers in her role as a NASA Endeavor Space Educator, is passionate about teaching space science and promoting high-quality space education for all. “Historically, the Earth and Space sciences have been dominated by men. People of color, low-income families, and urban residents face several barriers,” says Hirst Bernhardt. “When I was young and first became interested in space, there were few women role models in space science and even fewer women of color. That needs to change. Students need to see role models in astronomy, Earth science, and environmental science who look like them.” Slooh actively seeks to diversify STEM knowledge and democratize access to space. Students can access astronomy stories from a variety of cultures, embark on cultural Quests and tune in to special live events where speakers from varied backgrounds come to share their knowledge of the stars.


Using Technology to Create Equitable Access to Space Exploration


Historically, access to high-quality telescopes has been expensive, often costing tens of thousands of dollars to purchase and maintain the proper equipment. Students at the College of the Canyons don't have access to observatories compared to students at major universities. “That’s not the only issue,” says Hirst Bernhardt. “Students from urban areas and from low-income school districts face light pollution, meaning that the bright lights of a city can prevent them from viewing and capturing images of space to study.” With the edition of Slooh's asynchronous online education program and network of online telescopes, economic and environmental barriers such as these, are being systemically addressed for the first time, creating an equitable interface to space.


Additionally, Hirst Bernhardt says, there is a lack of educators with the proper training to impart passion for and knowledge of space education onto the next generation. In a world of increasingly market-oriented curricula, urban schools are some of the hardest hit when it comes to the availability of trained space science educators—something Hirst Bernhardt is working to change in her capacity as an educator of educators. “[There is a] need to bring up and support future teachers coming from urban populations that know those issues that can relate to the students,” says Hirst Bernhardt. “Those are powerful voices. How can we equip future educators, if they look at teachers and don't see anyone like them, that's the problem.” Other equally passionate educators are utilizing Slooh's platform to project these concerns and make real positive impact in STEM education. Leading a number of Professional Development webinars, there is now a global network of educators who are leveraging Slooh's platform to empower others to take up this call, and show them the way.


These barriers have historically made space education accessible to only a small population—those who can afford high-powered telescopes and who have access to locations dark enough to view and capture images of the night sky. “Earth and space science must be available to all if we are to develop a society of critical thinkers,” says Hirst Bernhardt. That's where Slooh, a turn-key virtual classroom with an arsenal of robotic telescopes, helps educators create equitable access for students across the globe. “Students are blown away by the ability to view objects in space and capture their own images using Slooh,” says Hirst Bernhardt. “We are living in a time where we can download any image, including deepfakes, from the Internet. Using Slooh, students collect and analyze observational data using the tools of real scientists. Students have the agency to explore space to the depth of their own interests and abilities, to discover for themselves the interconnectedness of science.”


October 20, 2021