Worldwide woes of teaching astronomy

Problems of teaching astronomy in American schools and colleges are compounded tenfold in countries overseas. This was a consensus among astronomers from around the world who met at the first-ever international astronomy education conference at Williams College here this summer. Problems range from lack of telescopes, teacher training, and systematic coverage of astronomy in Italian and German schools - to resistance to Western principles of science in China, India, and Indonesia.

The most universal problem is textbooks. Schools in Africa can't afford them; many European nations find the process of copyrighting, translating, and finding new photos a challenge.

Language differences and lack of funding combine to create a time lag in the dissemination of new astronomical findings - not only between the West and the third world, but even for such countries as Poland and Hungary, where textbooks are scarce, and research publications are translated very slowly. ``The difficulties in other countries are not typically known in America, where 200 million people speak the same language,'' says J.M. Kreiner of the Pedagogical University in Kracow, Poland. ``You are worried about getting computers, we are worried about getting textbooks.'' Budgets at Polish college libraries allow for the purchase of only 10 foreign books (at $20 each) a year.

In developing nations, straight translations of Western texts aren't enough. Texts have to account for a very different mind-set. In Malaysia, for example, astronomy teaching can run against deeply ingrained cultural superstitions and myths. Marie Othman, a Malaysian textbook writer, says that teachers in her country repeat the words and concepts of Western science but often, when probed, still believe strongly in hybrid forms of astrology. ``We have teachers who will not point a flashlight into the night sky because they fear that demons can go down the beam of light [from above],'' she says.

In India, according to Dr. Hardev Gurm of Punjab University, the political power inside college science departments is held by physicists and mathematicians. Astronomy lacks academic independence and support. Few textbooks are written.

Both Japan and Germany are riddled with popular astronomy books - but few textbooks. In Germany, only four texts are available. ``There are 11 federal states in Germany and each state has a different curriculum. If you want a textbook, you've got to translate it yourself,'' says Hans Neumann of the University of Frankfurt, who adds that among the five universities in his state, each with 20,000 students, there is only one astronomy professor.

The conference was sponsored by the International Astronomical Union, the world's largest astronomy organization.

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