I was a middle school science teacher in southeastern Michigan for 23 years, and if there is one thing I have learned it’s that students will ask questions that keep me on my toes. I especially loved teaching my 8th grade science classes because it allows me to teach Earth science, including Astronomy – which is a passion of my husband and myself. We are both volunteer NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors, and members of the Warren Astronomical Society, so all things space related are very important to us.
I was frequently told that my classroom is a fun and exciting room to be in. I spent more time in my classroom than I did at home, and I believe my work space should be as comfortable and interesting as my living room. This means I had posters, rocks and minerals, shelves of skulls, fossils, and things like stalactites around my room, this plays into the event I’m about to discuss.
A few years ago, I had a student ask me a question that gave me a foundational shift in my understanding about how my students were perceiving the world around them:
“Mrs. Trembley, where is the other Earth?”
Now the first thing we as teachers have to asses is whether or not a question is being asked as a serious question, or an attempt for a student to distract a class. If you don’t respond correctly this can have devastating effects on the child asking the question. I always responded to my students’ questions as if they have been asked in all seriousness, which in turn causes them to stop and think, taking the “class clown” factor out of the situation. The moment this question was asked, laughter sprung up around the room, the look on my student’s face and the blush rising up his cheeks told me that he was very serious about the question he asked. “I’m sorry, can you say that again?” My students know that sometimes I have a hard time hearing so this worked as a good cover allowing me to think. “Where is the other Earth?”
I was extremely confused, was he talking about Earthlike exoplanets? I was at a complete loss, so I asked him to explain what he meant. That was when he pointed to the wall map of the Earth, this is the one of our planet taken from satellites and pieced together. “Where is the other Earth?” All of a sudden the light bulb in my brain went off like a super nova!
This student thought that the picture that created that map was taken from the surface of our planet looking up into space at another Earth, not from a satellite looking down at our Earth! I had to handle this with extreme care as he was already feeling foolish because of the laughter from the other students. If it wasn’t handled correctly, he would shut down and may never get the courage to ask another question again.
I stuck by my policy and answered the question as seriously as I could – it had the expected effect causing the other students to also take it seriously, shutting down the laughter. I had to explain that the map he was seeing was of our planet taken from space above us. His question is what caused me to understand the way some of our children thought about the things around them.
Technology has given us tremendous opportunities, but it has also given us some challenges as well. Pointing to the poster in my room taken on the surface of Mars, I asked my students how we got those pictures. The answer was unanimously the same, we went there of course. Epiphany!!! Our children have the wrong understanding about a lot of things in Astronomy. With technology such as CGI, we can make videos that are difficult to tell if they are real or not. Satellite images, computer programs and games, and worldwide communication have altered perceptions making it difficult to tell what is real.
Astronomy is often left out in education past the elementary school level, yet this is a critical age where children have the capabilities to reason out and process the information they receive. They need to be educated in the fact that humans have only stepped foot on one other world than our own Earth – that being the Moon. They need to be taught that we have explored our solar system using robots and electronics. Telescopes have given us glimpses into our universe discovering things we never imagined.
When the news covers “A new Earthlike planet only 7 light years away,” the first thing the students think is cool, let’s go there! They believe we have seen that planet, gotten pictures, and all we have to do is jump into a space ship and go. They don’t understand what a light year is, how long it would take to get there, and that we don’t possess the technology to get there safely.
With the push to send humans to Mars taking center stage in recent years, the public thinks that this type of endeavor is no big deal and all that’s needed is money. Well money will allow us to develop the technology needed to, in theory, get to Mars, however there is the small problem of biology and the human body in space. We have only just begun to explore the effects of long-term exposure to a micro-gravity environment on our bodies, but there is one thing scientists do know – we need to figure out a way to protect ourselves against solar radiation. Our planet’s magnetic field provides us protection on the surface of Earth, but what happens when we leave that protection?
I struggle to help my students understand concepts that the news and social media are not discussing, and why we can’t just jump into a space craft and go. Society needs to understand that many of the pictures they see are often artist renditions or computer generated, and not actual photographs of a celestial body.
Those with the knowledge and understanding of space and the things in it need to understand that it isn’t just the young who believe these things. The general public are presented this same information and do not have the knowledge of what it means when they hear about “an Earth like planet,” perpetuating the belief that we can pack up and go there. They need to understand that there is no other Earth, or Earth 2, despite what the news presents and pictures they see. This planet is all we have and we better start taking care of it!
I tell my students that Astronomy is a science that changes on a daily basis because each advancement in technology allows us to learn more about the universe we live in. It is critical that we give the students the knowledge to understand what these advancements actually are, and what has been produced on a computer for entertainment purposes or news posts. Astronomy education is often a neglected science, but is such an important part of the future of human kind, we owe it to our children to give them an in-depth, fact-based education about our universe and everything in it.
About the Author:
Constance Martin-Trembley has a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Elementary Education and a Master’s of Education Degree in teaching Science Education. She retired in July of 2023, after being a middle school science teacher for 23 years, 22 of those for the New Haven School District, where she has twice earned teacher of the year.
Connie grew up in Detroit in the 1960’s during the space race between the US and Russia. This time in history sparked a life long interest in space for many young children including Connie. Connie has had the privilege of having an asteroid named after her, (117852) Constance, for the promotion of space education among children.
Connie is married to Bob Trembley – they are both volunteer NASA JPL Solar System Ambassadors, and promote space education at public venues, giving lectures about various space related topics. Connie has a particular fascination about the 1960’s space race and those involved.