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Education and outreach

The recent exchange on education and outreach prompts me to share some
tidbits from my own professional community. Space issues run a close
second to dinosaurs in interest for kids (at perhaps 10% of the attention
that dinosaurs usually get), and many of us in astronomy and space
science have long felt that disciplines this heavily dependent on public
support have a special responsibility to share the excitement of what
we're learning with the public (of all ages). In recent years, a bandwagon
has started rolling on outreach and involvement with elementary and
secondary education. Numerous trial programs have been going, and there 
is consensus on a few items. In particular, given the paucity of
professionals, the most effective use of time is often in workshops
for teachers, who will frequently lack the materials and pointers to see
whether something is amiss in the curriculum. There have been some
very interesting longer-term partnerships, the best of which happen
when the researcher discovers that it really takes an equal partnership -
that the "lower-level" teacher has a great deal of experience and expertise
in how to do things in the classroom which simply wouldn't occur to
someone who's only taught college students (who I sometimes despair
must have shorter attention spans...).

In our own group, we have found direct experiences to have a lasting
impact - we bring school groups in perhaps 15-20 times a year for
show and tell, including telescopic views of the sun and maybe Venus
(being pretty much confined to daylight for this). There is also
a tension here that I've heard some paleontologists express, between
having the kids do something that will get them thinking as opposed 
to makework assignments. NASA has done a lot lately to make materials
and data available publicly - one poster already noted this in regard
to satellite data. I will point out that this is easier for NASA than
for some other agencies, because public image aside, NASA has a long-standing
policy that its photographs are not subject to copyright (and their 
use is unlimited unless some sort of commercial misrepresentation takes
place). The policy has now carried over to digital data, and the whole
body of data from some missions is now available on CD-ROM or internet
once original investigators' proprietary periods have expired when
that is relevant (nope, I will not be suckered into arguing about
this one). I am quite interested in the recent work on making digital
casts of fossils; even so far, the broadening of public involvement
made possible by widespread data sharing has been very encouraging.
Furthermore, it brings a lot of good will to the field - just think back
to the excitement as we all watched the aftermath of SL9's demise
practically in real time.

Hope some of these ideas can jump fields usefully. Special thanks to the
long and thoughtful posts on museum roles and policies.

Bill Keel                 Astronomy, University of Alabama