Macquarie University
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Design principles, implementation and evaluation for inquiry-based astronomy: an investigation of the issues surrounding sufficient teacher professional development in large-scale astronomical initiatives

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posted on 2022-03-28, 02:10 authored by Michael T. Fitzgerald
Astronomy, as a human endeavour, allows us to explore and understand our place in the universe,both in time as well as in space. This field of practice forms an indispensable component of any endeavour to understand the nature and purpose of our existence. Astronomy also presents us with access to seemingly boundless aesthetic beauty as well as the potential for a lot of fun! While this is the case, these apparently appealing aspects of astronomy are being lost on the majority people in the modern developed world. Interest in science in general as a vocation as well as a general interest area is experiencing decline at all levels of education. This is occurring despite the necessity of science in the broad functioning of our societies, the necessity of scientific skills in most modernoccupations and the continual calls for, and attempts at, reform of the nature of science education. This thesis is situated in the context of an Australian high school level astronomy intervention project. This project focuses on enabling students to undertake real science with professional grade 2-metre class telescopes in order to provide an authentic experience of the nature, fun and beauty of astronomy. It was intended that this approach would positively affect students' perceptions of astronomy and science as well as what influences their subject choice in later years. The thesis takes three separate but interlinking pathways towards understanding the problems and issues involved with this endeavour as well as identifying potential solutions. The first pathway starts by placing the intervention within a historical context. The history of student perceptions of high school science over time are explored showing that little has changed to shift student perceptions over the last decade. In turn, the intervention project itself is compared to other similar astronomy education projects. It is shown that while there are many differences amongst these projects, there are a number of common themes that can make or break such interventions and which must be addressed if success is the aim. The intervention project itself is then outlined in detail in a summary paper. The second pathway explores the nature of the context within which the project operates and in which the teacher is the key actor. It is they who eventually direct what occurs in the classroom and hence what impacts student activity, motivation and learning. While this is the case, their autonomy is restricted by multiple factors which serve to block true inquiry-based learning in the classroom. Through semi-structured interviews with the teachers involved, the perceptions of these blocking factors are explored. Respondents claimed issues such as the lack of time, curriculum limitations, inadequate or poor-quality training and professional learning, poor resources and lack of supervisor support, amongst others, were identified as key factors. The very stark differences in perception between teachers and students are then explored in a quantitative manner. Globally, teachers see their classroom actions and approaches in a much more positive light than their students do. Furthermore, it is shown that there is little relationship between the students' perceptions of their classrooms and their individual teacher's perception. This leads us to make the important qualifier presented in this thesis that in any endeavour accurate and effective project evaluation must be undertaken at the level of the student. In the third pathway, the educational design principles and methodology used to guide the development of materials are outlined and investigated. This educational design goes beyond simple curriculum material creation to one which incorporates solutions to known, potentially tractable, issues identified in the previous research. Turning the traditional design approach on its head, student learning is perceived as having a lower priority than other concerns. Learning is theorised to emerge naturally, given both sufficient quality in the materials and in the teaching, when blocking factors have been removed. The design is also flexible and extensible, able to be presented concisely within a limited time span or able to take an advanced student all the way to a scientific publication. It is also continually adaptable and updated based on actively solicited feedback from teachers and students. The design also draws on multiple well-tested inquiry-based pedagogies as well as focusing on backward mapping from firmly defined goals. The evaluation results of student gains, both cognitive and affective, who have experienced the implementation of this design is then examined. It is clearly shown that this educational design can have a dramatic impact on student learning and on their perceptions of science. It is also apparent from these data that the impact is heavily dependent upon the teacher and their actual implementation in the classroom. For those who have approximated the intended implementation, the gains in both dimensions tended to be much higher than those who did not. Finally, two examples of work are presented that have taken students to present their work for scientific publication using this design, a study of RR Lyrae variables in the Globular Cluster NGC6101 and a study of the previously neglected open cluster, NGC2215. One of the major outcomes of this work has been to illustrate that with careful design, inquiry-based astronomy can feasibly be undertaken in the high-school classroom to dramatic effect. While there are still fundamental limitations set by outside concerns, this research shows that it is possible within the current state of school science to undertake inquiry-based science (rather than inquiry-based school science) within the everyday classroom. Within this project, powerful characteristics have been identified that all actors must take into account for a successful inquiry-based implementation whether they are teachers, principals or external project personnel. The most important implications that emerge from this research are for the nature of teacher training, both pre-service and in-service, for educational jurisdictions, and for the indispensable role that evaluation plays both during and after the implementation of external projects. The nature of this intervention is that the teachers involved with this study were generally the keener and more independent teachers at their school. It remains to be seen what changes will need to be made as the design adapts to the less interested or less capable teachers as time goes on. One of the strongest aspects is the nature of the design outlined in this thesis and its ability to react strongly and effectively to the needs and requirements of the teachers who use it. If the approach is more widely adopted, the outlook for success is promising.


Table of Contents

Part A. Introduction, context and background -- Part B. Teacher demographics, blocking factors, perceptions and change -- Part C. Educational design and emerging student achievement -- Part D. Conclusion and recommendations.


Includes bibliographic references Thesis by publication.

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Department, Centre or School

Department of Physics and Astronomy

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Mark Wardle

Additional Supervisor 1

David McKinnon

Additional Supervisor 2

Lena Danaia


Copyright Michael T. Fitzgerald 2014. Copyright disclaimer:




New South Wales


1 online resource (216 pages) illustrations (some colour)

Former Identifiers