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A New Online Astronomy Resource for General Education and the General Public:
A New Online Astronomy Resource for General Education and the General Public:

September, 2011
Chris Impey & Kevin Hardegree-Ullman; Steward Obs., Univ. of Arizona

This month we hear from Chris Impey and Kevin Hardegree-Ullman, from the Univ. of Arizona. Many of you many have met either or both of them at a past AAS meeting, since both of them have presented in our Collaboration of Astronomy Teaching Scholars (CATS) sessions in recent years. Chris is one of the PI’s on our CATS grant, and Kevin is one of Chris’ undergraduate students. Chris and Kevin are going to tell us about a new online astronomy teaching and learning resource that they have been developing. It might just be what many of you have been searching for!

On August 6, 1991, British physicist Tim Berners-Lee created the first publicly available website on the Internet, starting a wildfire that still burns strongly 20 years later. Like the stock market, the World Wide Web has had its fair share of booms and crashes, but over time it has become the most valuable resource for almost everyone living in the Information Age. College classrooms are filled with students using laptops and tablet computers to take notes, and it is practically a requirement to have Internet access to do homework, check grades, or just relax after a long day of classes. As educators, we have decided to take part in the Internet evolution and create a web (literally!) of knowledge for non-science students learning astronomy and for a significant sector of the general public that is interested in astronomy.

The website we have created is called “Teach Astronomy.” Many multimedia sources are used to make Teach Astronomy an online learning portal for general astronomy information. The tool we developed that makes Teach Astronomy unique is called the “Wikimap.” The Wikimap utilizes Adobe Flash and our own algorithms to cluster astronomy content and create a visual search tool for students and informal learners. Results from a search are displayed in a radial web layout with the closest match to the search term displayed as a node in the center of the web, and the next closest matches displayed as nodes in the web around the central node. Article relatedness is indicated by proximity to the central node. Articles are easily viewed by hovering over a node and clicking on one of the options in the menu that pops out. Think of it as a focused way of doing what the Internet enables so well: surfing content.

Right now we have seven portals available for browsing astronomy content. First and foremost, we have made available updated astronomy content from the introductory astronomy textbook “The Universe Revealed,” co-authored by planetary scientist William Hartmann and one of us (CI). The “Textbook” view on our site allows you to peruse the articles just as they are presented linearly through a textbook. To show the more complex interrelationships between topic areas, we have also clustered all 700 articles from the textbook and presented it through a searchable Wikimap in the “Article” view. Many instructors still use a textbook even as the cost escalates well past $100, so here we present a fully searchable and free textbook to save students time and money.

In addition to the textbook views, we have created a walled garden of around 40,000 astronomy-related Wikipedia articles that are searchable using the Wikimap. Wikipedia generates strong reactions among academics who question its accuracy and legitimacy. We are agnostic on the overall quality of Wikipedia, but in scientific areas, it has been shown to be nearly as reliable and accurate as an expert-authored and peer-reviewed encyclopedia. A lot of very detailed and useful information about astronomy has been created, and many articles are annotated with references to the research literature. At the very least, Wikipedia is a general resource for quick information on many topics and we have created an easier way for students to browse astronomy information and see relationships between topics.

Multimedia tops off the list of astronomy content available through Teach Astronomy. Over 5,000 images from the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) database have been clustered to provide an easy image search tool. We have also clustered over 1,200 1-3 minute video clips of one of us (CI) explaining topics from “Abundance of Terrestrial Planets” to “Zodiacal Light,” to create a miniature lecture from a single search topic. In totality, the video content is equivalent to an entire video course. Three years of podcasts from 365 Days of Astronomy are also available to learn more about astronomy and projects going on all around the world. The APOD and 365 Days content is updated daily. Last, but not least, we have provided the most recent news articles from the Space and Time category on the news aggregator web site Science Daily to give learners easy access to current events in astronomy.

Twenty years of World Wide Web evolution cannot compete with the 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution, but it can play a part in helping to disseminate astronomy knowledge. Teach Astronomy aims to be the most complete source of basic astronomy information on the web. The primary goal is to facilitate learning and broad familiarity with astronomy. We’ll be continuing to develop the site to keep up with technology, teachers, students, and knowledge. Please take some time to use our site and provide us feedback via our online form. Your feedback will allow us to improve the site and benefit the astronomy learning community.

Teaching Strategies Archive

CAE is housed in the Astronomy Dept. at the Univ. of Arizona's Steward Observatory. CAE is funded through the generous contributions of the NASA JPL Exoplanet Exploration Public Engagement Program. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0715517, a CCLI Phase III Grant for the Collaboration of Astronomy Teaching Scholars (CATS). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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