It is widely recognized that astronomy is a powerful tool to encourage greater awareness of and interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: the so-called STEM-based subjects that play such an important role in modern world culture and which underpin our modern knowledge-based economy. At the same time it is recognized that even in first-world countries such as the UK and Ireland, the general level of scientific literacy and understanding is low.
The reasons for this are manifold and must be addressed on many fronts. Armagh Observatory's response to this cultural challenge has been to develop a vibrant programme of Science in the Community and links with the UNAWE and EU-UNAWE programmes. The objective is to help close the gap in students' knowledge of astronomy and provide wider understanding of some of the deepest issues raised by astronomy and our present understanding of Earth's place in the Universe: fundamental questions that have been debated by theologians, scientists and philosophers for hundreds of years.
The economic challenge faced by the UK is that the envisaged growth in STEM business areas is not being matched by a sufficient growth in the number of young people choosing to study these subjects at school, college and university. We need more young people to understand science, and more young scientists coming from all parts of the community.
With the resources at our disposal, the observatory's EU-UNAWE team has chosen to focus on providing elementary teacher-training courses on astronomy to maximise our impact on school students. During our first year, more than 9000 children have been directly or indirectly reached by our EU-UNAWE trained primary-sector teachers, and over the next year we expect to reach a similar number of teachers and — through them — a further large number of young people.
- Mark E. Bailey, UK National Project Coordinator:
Mark Bailey is an astrophysicist and Director of Armagh Observatory. His main fields of expertise are solar-system astronomy, galactic astrophysics, and education and public outreach. Whilst at Armagh he initiated the building of the Human Orrery, an innovative hands-on play area for demonstrating Earth's place in space, the motion and positions of the planets and other solar-system objects at any time, and the scale of the solar system. He has wide experience in frontline astronomical research, management and leading projects. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a former Vice-President of the Royal Astronomical Society, and a member of the International Astronomical Union.
- Libby McKearney, UK National Project Manager:
Libby has a First Class Honours degree in Computing and Information Systems and worked for almost 20 years providing specialist primary and post-primary curriculum support in both science and technology in the Southern Education and Library Board’s Curriculum Support Centre. She remains a long time member of the Association for Science Education and is a keen member in one of the leading amateur astronomy groups in Northern Ireland, the Irish Astronomical Association (IAA). Libby has brought all this experience including working with teachers and children to her post as UK Project Manager. The main focus of the position is organizing and delivering EU-UNAWE teacher training courses and providing astronomy-related curriculum advice to schools and other outreach events. It is both rewarding and a privilege to help inspire young people through the vision of EU-UNAWE.