Three Interdisciplinary Benefits of Astronomy

2020-12-08 / Karrie Berglund / Interdisciplanary Teaching

A visit to Mars

I refer to astronomy as the perfect “gateway” science. People of all ages love thinking about space, so it is easy to motivate students to learn about it. Plus you can approach astronomy from so many different angles that there really is something for everyone. This flexibility and intrinsic motivation to learn about it make space science an excellent foundation for interdisciplinary learning.

Before we delve into why astronomy is such a good foundation, let’s define interdisciplinary learning and consider some of its benefits.

What is interdisciplinary learning?

Interdisciplinary learning is presenting a unified topic or theme across different subject areas. Often teachers plan and coordinate lessons so that each teacher presents an area that is of special interest to him/her.

If you were doing a unit on Mars, you could link it to other subject areas such as:

Lowell's Martian canals
Lowell's Martian canals
  • Biology: If there were life on Mars, what might it look like? How would it move? What would it eat? How and what would it breathe?
  • Chemistry: Why does Mars’ atmosphere cause blue sunsets? Why is Mars’ soil red?
  • Planetary geology: What evidence is there that water once flowed on Mars? How do we know that Mars used to have active volcanoes?
  • Social science/history: Why is the planet Mars named after the Roman god of war? Show the region of Mars where Percival Lowell theorized that there were canals, and discuss how his interpretations of that area could have been influenced by the building of major canals on Earth such as the Suez and Panama Canals.
  • Language arts/English: Have student read H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Discuss how it reflected its time, why it has been so popular (it has never been out of print since it was initially published), and what has kept it relevant through the years.

What are the benefits of interdisciplinary learning?

I think the most important benefit of interdisciplinary learning is that it is similar to real world learning. Lucy Madden, CEO of Letters to a Pre-Scientist, summed this up in a 2018 blog post:

Adults apply cross-curricular thinking on a daily basis. We read about non-fiction topics we care about or to inform our work, write in many formats to communicate our ideas or findings, analyze data using math and critical thinking skills, and collaborate with others in different fields to name a few examples. Rarely do adults complete tasks in isolation without utilizing many skills simultaneously, yet schools often teach subjects in silos.

Interdisciplinary learning provides a broader base of understanding. This is especially effective if you pull in social and emotional learning (SEL) when possible. Here’s one example using SEL:

Let’s assume that you are working on the theme of nuclear fusion. For astronomy, you will discuss stellar evolution. The history teacher will use nuclear fusion as part of a unit on World War II, in particular the Manhattan Project. The goal of the Manhattan Project was to create atomic bombs to force a Japanese surrender faster than with conventional warfare. The Japanese did in fact surrender about a few days after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To pull in SEL, the history teacher could ask students to evaluate whether the benefit of ending World War II quickly was worth the high cost in Japanese lives. Would the students have made the decision that President Harry S. Truman made—to drop the bombs—or would they have made a different choice? If so, what choice would they have made? Students would need to explain their decisions and reasoning throughout the exercise.

Why use astronomy as your base for cross-curricular studies?

Now that we know what interdisciplinary learning is, how it can be used, and how students can benefit from it, let’s focus on using astronomy as the foundation. I have three major reasons for suggesting this:

Sci-fi convention
A sci-fi convention (Shesmax, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

1. You can use students’ natural interest in space science to excite them about learning in general. As noted above, astronomy appeals to people of all ages. For proof you need only look at the prevalence and popularity of science fiction movies and TV shows such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and more. Start with what students love, and connect it to topics they may not yet have learned to enjoy. This will give you a greater chance of inspiring them to fully engage in their learning.

2. Astronomy is a snap to connect to other topics. One big drawback to interdisciplinary teaching is the amount of planning time that can be required to coordinate lessons among multiple teachers. Luckily astronomy naturally lends itself to integration, so this time will be minimized.

You likely already have ideas for connecting astronomy to other topics, but if you are looking for more, we have several suggestions on our website:

3. Astronomy requires creative thinking and problem solving. One of the most challenging aspects of astronomy is that we are extremely limited in what we can explore by touch or other close investigation. We cannot send an astronaut to the Sun to bring back a sample, and space is so vast that there is a tiny number of places aside from Earth where we can reasonably send humans or even robots.

You may find that students who do not excel at memorizing facts and figures love thinking about questions like:

  • How have scientists determined the shape and size of the Milky Way galaxy when no one has ever seen it from the outside?
  • Why have we not sent humans anywhere except the Moon?
  • How do we know what the speed of light is?
  • How do we know the distance to the Sun, Moon, or other bodies?

Challenge your students’ inner engineers to analyze problems and propose solutions. For example, you could start with the question: “What problems do we have to solve before we can send humans to the surface of Mars?” Once the class has generated a list of problems, have students work in teams to choose a problem and then create solutions to that problem. Think of the tremendous number of different aspects of just this one question, like physics, engineering, biology, health, psychology, chemistry, even agriculture.

Astronomy is an inspiring springboard and a strong yet flexible foundation for cross-curricular studies. In this time of having our personal worlds limited by coronavirus restrictions, reminding students of the scale and grandeur of the universe may help lift their spirits as well as stimulate thinking.

Related: Astronomy: Gateway to Science

About the Author

Karrie is Director of Education and a co-founder of Digitalis. She spearheads LIPS and is often on the road at conferences. She writes the LIP Service column for the IPS Planetarian professional journal, leads the IPS Vision 2020 Professional Development team, and is an IPS Fellow.

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