A challenge facing our country in the new century is to maintain the integrity and vitality of the scientific and technological leadership that the United States has enjoyed in the past 100 years. An essential component of a healthy scientific enterprise is a scientifically literate and well-educated public, and professional scientists have a vital role to play in achieving a world-class system of science education. In the past decade, the growing consensus about the need for rejuvenation of science and mathematics education in our nation’s schools led professional scientists to join with educators in taking a careful look at how science is taught and how teachers are trained to teach science. One result of efforts made by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education, along with the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been the development of national benchmarks and standards for science education.
Despite its comparatively small size, the astronomical community has the potential to add significantly to the continuing effort to strengthen science education and improve public science literacy. Astronomical concepts and images have universal appeal, inspiring wonder and resonating uniquely with human questions about our nature and our place in the universe. This widespread interest in astronomy can be tapped not only to increase knowledge and understanding on the part of students and the public alike, but also to illuminate the nature of science, as well as its power and limitations in shaping our future. Moreover, the interdisciplinary nature of astronomy and its natural links with technology and instrumentation position the field to contribute significantly to building a strong technical work force for the 21st century.
Astronomers are keenly aware of the generous support provided by the public through the federal science agencies, and they understandably wish to contribute to the society that supports their research activities. Education and public outreach provide means to do so. The astronomical community’s mobilization on the education front has begun with major educational initiatives undertaken by NASA’s Office of Space Science, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the American Astronomical Society, and astronomers are participating actively in educational opportunities offered by the NSF. For example, Project ASTRO of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific brings professional astronomers and teachers together in workshops to learn hands-on,