Learning about Astronomy: a case study exploring how grade 7 and 8 students experience sites of informal learning in South Africa
All students are able to learn something about astronomy when they participate in a school visit to a site of informal learning such as a science centre. I examined how children from four schools experienced presentations and participated in activities about astronomy during a two to four hour visit to either the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory or the Johannesburg Planetarium in South Africa. The case study involved observing thirty-four 12- to 14-year-old students at the science centre and interviewing them about astronomy concepts including those based on personal meaning maps they drew prior to and after their visit. The data were analysed using a human constructivist framework to determine both what and how students learnt during their visit.
Despite a lack of teacher involvement I show how students collectively and individually learnt about concepts in astronomy, which I categorised into a set of seven Big Ideas: gravity, stars and the Sun, size and scale, the Solar System, day and night, Moon phases and parabolic dishes. Collectively, there was an improvement in their knowledge of Big Ideas dealt with at the study sites, including gravity, stars, the Sun, size and scale, and parabolic dishes. The students showed little change in their knowledge of day and night or the phases of the Moon. Individually, all students learnt principally by incremental addition of knowledge, while some students also demonstrated greater knowledge restructuring. Students with the least prior knowledge added additional basic facts to their repertoire, while those with greater prior knowledge were able to reorganise their knowledge and achieve greater understanding. All students also showed that the affective domain (for example enjoyment and wonder) contributed to their learning by encouraging interest in astronomy. Some students demonstrated examples of conative learning in which their experiences prompted them to further action after their visit. While the visit changed the misconceptions of some students, it made little difference to others, and promoted misconceptions in a few. Methodological findings included the value of using personal meaning maps, the importance of using models during the interview process and observations of how students used language in their description of astronomical processes.
The study suggests that students learn best from a range of activities clustered around a central theme, and that enjoyable activities appear to enhance learning. I recommend that the astronomy presented at the centres focus on a limited number of concepts in astronomy, and that presentations and activities be structured around those Big Ideas. Science centers should provide teachers with guidelines for their visit. I also propose that activities aim to recall students’ prior knowledge and provide situational interest to encourage motivation in the topic of astronomy and the subject of science. Finally I suggest that science centres should combine cognitive learning with affective fun, as recommended by students participating in the study.
Lelliott, A. D. (2007). Learning about Astronomy: a case study exploring how grade 7 and 8 students experience sites of informal learning in South Africa (Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).
Type of Publication
Lelliott, Anthony D.
University of the Witwatersrand
Nation(s) of Study