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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 8 June Solstice 1993

Teaching Archaeoastronomy
by David Dearborn

"Why do I have to take this course? It has nothing to do with my major." Hark! it's the cry of the Brightly Plumed Sophomore.

The introductory course for astronomy majors is frequently a cause of severe mental suffering. The appearance of an aspireing young proto-astronomer discovering that his chosen discipline is a hardcore physics based science (si no habla calculus, vaya te) is not always pretty. Given the nature of astronomy, what are we trying to acomplish in the courses for non-majors?

When you get past all of the "motherhood" statements in the university entrance manuels (well rounded student, broad based education, ...) the basic answer is to provide the student with some exposure to scientific methodology (and fulfill a science requirement). Unfortunately the temptation to touch on all of the exciteing information that has been gathered by modern astronomy, often results in a course that is a catalog of current facts collected for display in the astronomuical zoo. Students leave these courses without a view to distinguish the data from hypothesis. Everything is lost in the definitions of spectral types, and the activities of science are confused with the use of the expensive toys like spacecraft.

People organized, and eventually understood the motions of the sun, moon and planets without CCD's, and computers. Distinguishing the activities of a scientist from a shaman or science from religion can more clearly be done in the limited context of archaeoastronomy (Having been designated a shaman in an anthropological study, I believe this distinction is more difficult than many believe). Sophisticated skywatching activities developed cross culturally for practical as well as social reasons. The need to respond to the seasons is biologically based. These seasons are driven and defined by celestial motions. This connection between sky and earth exists for people across the earth. The combination of arcaheoastronomy and basic observational astronomy serves as a vehicle to teach both scientific methodology, and the range of human reason for the persuit of science.

Archaeoastronomy has worked its way into the curriculum of a number major colleges and Universities. Some courses are cross listed so that athropology students can take them as a physical science, and astronomy students can take them as a social science. Such courses provide students with the experience of discovering the roots of astronomy for themselves, and connecting it to their environment.

To promote the development of archaeoastronomy in universities, and as a tool for science education, we have decided to collect information on courses that are being offered on this subject. We are interested in both formal college and university courses as well as popular courses. A quick survey of the usual suspects results in the list given below. Once a more complete list is compiled, we hope to organizing a workshop to compare the the goals of these courses (the instructors may approach the subject from an astronomical, anthropological, or historical perspective), and the materials available.

The utility of such a workshop goes far beyond encouraging the development of archaeoastronomy in universities. Having lectured to predominently hispanic students in bilingual classes, I have seen the power of archaeoastronomy to motivate students. Individuals involved in promoting science education among various ethnic groups have also expressed enthusiasm in participating in such a workshop. The material has great potential for forming the core of a curriculum segment to promote science education.

The first step is to gather data on what is being done now. We wish to hear from anyone who teach a course with a significant archaeoastronomy component, or who might be interested the type of workshop described. We are particularly interested in receiving information on the syllabus and goals of the courses that are being taught.

This information will be collected by Dave Dearborn, and e-mail is easiest for me. Y'all write now.

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