Astronomy is the formal study of the sun, moon, stars, planets, comets, galaxies, gas, dust and other non-Earthly phenomena. In other words, astronomy is a field that concentrates on studying the universe. In ancient times, astronomy overlapped with astrology and included formal investigations of celestial occurrences of all kinds. In modern times, astronomy is now more closely aligned with other scientific fields, such as physics.
In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were only 1,750 astronomers currently working across the U.S. While NASA may be the most obvious destination for an astronomer, far more space scientists are affiliated with college or university astronomy or physics departments. Teaching is a common and even inevitable destination for the small number of people who enter the astronomy field.
Overall, astronomy is one of the world’s oldest physical sciences, and because of the uniqueness of the field, educators trained to teach the subject may find themselves using advanced technology, physical and hands-on activities, as well as creative approaches to introduce subject material, depending on the age and grade level of the students being taught.
While postsecondary astronomy classes are often lecture-based, teaching students in elementary, middle and high school often involves a blend of using astronomy-related software applications, planetarium field trips, and serving as an advisor for a local astronomy club. Astronomy teachers may also find themselves being employed outside of the classroom, such as at a science museum or planetarium.
How can I become an elementary, middle or high school astronomy teacher?
Although teachers explore topics pertaining to astronomy, the subject is rarely, if ever, offered as a stand-alone course at the elementary, middle or high school levels.
Astronomy centers on the study of the sun, moon and planets, and is often one of the first lessons in science that a student encounters. Students at the middle and high school levels learn about gases and matter in relation to the atmosphere – all concepts that tie into astronomy. However, the subject is generally introduced as part of another discipline’s curriculum, such as physics, rather than taught as a distinct class.
In the rare occasion that a high school offers astronomy as an elective, the following steps illustrate the process that a teacher takes to qualify for such a position:
Earn a bachelor’s degree. Teachers who have earned a B.S. degree in astronomy possess a solid background in mathematics and physics, and have taken courses and conducted research in astronomy and astrophysics. Some universities may not offer the opportunity for a student to major in astronomy as an undergraduate. In this case, an individual may pursue a physics program with a specialization in astronomy. However, in order to teach high school, graduates must also fulfill requirements in teacher education.
Complete a teacher education program. All prospective teachers who have not majored in education must complete a teacher program, which includes an internship or student-teaching experience under the guidance of a veteran educator. During this time, aspiring teachers get acquainted with the high school environment, plan lessons, interact with students/staff/parents, and get a chance to teach a class of their own.
Get licensed or certified to teach. Every astronomy teacher must obtain a license according to guidelines set by their state of residence in order to teach within the public school system. The average process generally includes the submission of an application and transcripts, payment of licensure fees, passing examination scores, and completing a teacher education program.
Maintain licensure. Astronomy teachers must participate in professional development activities, as well as earn continuing education credits, in order to maintain a valid teaching license.
How do I become a college or university astronomy professor?
According to the American Astronomical Society (AAS), most professional astronomers (about 55 percent) either serve as faculty members at universities and colleges, or are affiliated with the observatories and laboratories at a college or university. At the college and university levels, astronomy is also referred to as “the space sciences.”
A professor at a two-year institution typically teaches astronomy courses most often offered as electives for students pursuing other science majors. Many astronomy professors at the college level are prepared to teach in one or more additional fields.
Astronomy professors teaching at a junior or community college generally hold either a master’s degree in physics, astronomy or astrophysics; or a bachelor’s degree in physics or astronomy and a master’s degree in a related field, such as engineering, mathematics, meteorology or geophysics. This range of credentials speaks to the fact that astronomy is an interdisciplinary scientific field with many different applications.
A professor at a four-year institution is required to hold a PhD, and is often hired upon the recommendation of faculty within a school’s astronomy or astronomy/physics department.
Qualified candidates have typically completed graduate coursework in the field, written field exams demonstrating their expertise in one or more astronomy specializations (such as solar, stellar, planetary, galactic, extragalactic or cosmology), and have written and defended a dissertation on a topic in astronomy. University astronomy professors may offer courses with titles like “Stars in the Interstellar Medium” or “Cosmology” or “Solar Physics.” They are also expected to have an active program of research and publication in the field, and may publish articles on topics as varied as magnetic activity cycles and the visualization of the Milky Way.
Depending on their teaching schedule, astronomers assuming an academic position may spend time conducting research, but teaching is their overall primary responsibility and concern. Since not every college or university has an exclusive astronomy department, it is not uncommon for astronomy professors to become a member of the physics department. Because of their training, an astronomy professor may also teach some physics courses, when applicable.
Most astronomy professors spend part of their time observing the universe and as a result, they may be stationed at an observatory in the U.S. or abroad for part of the year (such as the National Optical Astronomy Observatory). Like other science faculty at the university level, recruiting, training and supervising graduate students is also an integral part of their job.
When teaching astronomy at a planetarium, some establishments hire educators to work with college astronomy professors to provide support for their lectures. Depending on various factors, an individual could get a job associated with a college planetarium with as little as a bachelor’s degree in astronomy.
What is the job outlook for astronomy teachers?
The hiring trends for astronomy majors within academic circles is expected to experience job growth of between 8 and 14 percent, from 2012-2022. An anticipated 3,500 employment openings are projected to emerge for educators trained to teach atmospheric-, earth-, marine-, and space sciences. Retiring educators primarily contribute to the increasing job opportunities within the above-mentioned fields, including those who teach astronomy.
The American Astronomical Society also stated that astronomers as a group are motivated to aggressively recruit professionals and educators that represent a more diverse pool of individuals. Male-to-female ratios have already shown progress in this area, with more than 25 percent of young astronomers being female. More efforts are being made to create a balance of all races – both male and female.
What is the compensation for astronomy teachers?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median salaries earned in 2014 for astronomy teachers (which falls under a category of educators who teach courses in physical sciences outside of physics and chemistry, such as atmospheric-, earth-, marine-, and space sciences) were as follows:
High school teachers – $56,310
Postsecondary teachers – $81,780
The overall salaries paid to astronomy teachers are ultimately affected by place of employment, years of experience in the field, and geographic location. For instance, the top-paying locations (as noted by the BLS) for educators teaching astronomy on the postsecondary level includes the following states: Indiana ($111,050), New Jersey ($110,780), California ($109,500), Maryland ($104,220), and Massachusetts ($103,720).
In 2014, the majority of astronomy professors were employed in colleges, universities and professional schools, where 8,030 teachers earned an annual mean wage of $92,090. Paid an annual salary of $85,540, junior colleges employed 2,850 astronomy professors that same year.
The median salaries that astronomy professors earn while employed at a college or university depends on the size, reputation and competitiveness of a school. Before an astronomy teacher earns the advanced degree required to assume a position at a university, they may be paid between $35,000 and $45,000 per year. On the university level, professors can fill a part-time or full-time position, starting with roles as an adjunct professor, assistant professor or associate professor. The AAS identifies the starting salary for an assistant professor as around $50,000, whereas senior professors can earn between $80,000 and $100,000 per year.
Faculty members who teach astronomy may also enhance their annual salaries by teaching summer school sessions, as well as participating in research and studies in their off-time.
In conclusion, astronomy is not a common elective found within the elementary, middle and high school curriculum, but those with an interest to teach the subject can typically find employment on the postsecondary level. Oftentimes added to the physics department, not all programs concentrate on astronomy as a stand-alone major. Those who pursue a career as an astronomy educator will find opportunities to work in academics, as well as in other scholarly environments, such as museums and planetariums. Those in the college and university setting will spend most of their time teaching, while combining minimum research and publication.