We searched three areas for research into the issue of what is taught or what should be taught in Astro 101:
1. Grades 9–12 curriculum content standards in the United States
2. Groups of individual instructors of Astro 101
3. Efforts by professional organizationsThe 1996 National Science Education Standards (NSES) proposed by the National Research Council aggressively outline the rules for effective classroom instruction, age-appropriate guidelines for curriculum materials development, authentic assessment procedures, and professional development programs for teachers (National Research Council 1996). These goals were articulated in Science for All Americans (1989, 1990), the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993), and Atlas of Science Literacy (2001) for Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In addition to the emphasis on describing science through unifying concepts and processes, the NSES provide specific learning content objectives. For K-12 astronomy, the NSES suggests 11 major astronomy objectives. These objectives include (1) describing the objects and motions of the sky (grades K-4), (2) the characteristics of gravity and the Solar System (grades 5–8), and (3) the origin and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the Universe (grades 9–12). These objectives are found in both the Earth/space science content strand and in the themes of unifying concepts and processes (Adams & Slater 2000; Slater 2000). The connections among these concepts were “back mapped” in the Atlas of Science Literacy (2001). Table I in Slater (2000) summarizes these for each grade grouping; grades 9–12 are most relevant to Astro 101. However, to the best of our knowledge, Astro 101 instructors have not inspected these topics. Our sense is that the college instructors are largely ignorant of these recommendations.
Slater et al. (2001) took another approach in two phases. First, they asked faculty preregistered for a workshop on teaching introductory astronomy to provide three main goals. Second, they examined 37 course syllabi and compared their content with 67 topics extracted from popular textbooks. In their Figure 2, Slater et al. gave the topics most commonly taught; we include these in Appendix A. We note that these are not very fine grained, but give a global indication of conceptual content.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) took a different method (Partridge & Greenstein 2003). It convened two workshops for chairs and other department leaders from selected major research universities. Their rationale for this choice was that if any departments play a leadership role in the astronomical community, it is these research institutions. If their teaching practices are systemically reviewed and improved, it is more likely that those in two- and four-year colleges will follow. In addition, writers and publishers of textbooks are more likely to pay attention to systemic reforms at such large and influential institutions. (This assumption may not be true. For example, Arrny, Zeilik, Chaisson, Seeds, Pasachoff, Fix, Moche, and Fraknoi do not teach at prestigious Research I institutions.) The workshops involved three dozen participants from 30 institutions. The content goals are even less fine grained than those found by Slater et al. (2001); see Appendix B.
Lippert & Partridge (2004) adopted 13 of the AAS goals verbatim (see their Table I) for a small (N=38) Astro 101 class at Haverford College. At the end of the course, they asked the students to rate the 13 goals on a Likert scale from 1 (not important or effective) to 5 (very important or effective). The class mean was 3.3±0.2, just above midpoint. The students ranked goals that focused on the broad understanding of astronomy and on building a positive self-image as scientists. They also were requested to rank how well the course met these goals, and generally rated the effectiveness in meeting these goals higher than their interest in the goals. The #1 importance of a “cosmic perspective” matched its success, an indication that overall, the course matched student expectations. However, we find it hard to generalize from such a small, select sample.