Conceptual astronomy knowledge among amateur astronomers

September 2, 2014, 1:51:16


Berendsen, M., 2005, Astronomy Education Review, 4, 1, 1-18

Amateur astronomers, whether as members of astronomy clubs or as individuals, frequently lead or participate in outreach in their local communities. Amateur astronomers also have a wide range of educational backgrounds and astronomical background knowledge. The researcher was interested in understanding the conceptual astronomy knowledge of amateur astronomers, particularly those who serve as "outreachers" -- communicators and informal educators of astronomy. The research, conducted via a survey of self-identified amateur astronomers, focused on three questions. First, which factors in educational background and amateur astronomy experience are correlated with increased or decreased conceptual astronomy knowledge? Second, what is the level of astronomical knowledge among amateurs who participate in outreach? Third, does this astronomical knowledge indicate that amateur astronomers can be a reliable, valid source of astronomical information for their audiences (i.e., the general public)?

No comparison condition.

The researcher developed and deployed an Astronomy Concepts Survey (ACS), which is available as an Appendix to the paper. The survey is adapted from a previously published assessment, the Astronomy Diagnostic Test Version 2 (ADT 2), by Zeilik 2003. It includes 21 multiple-choice questions, and is scored on a percentage correct scale. The ADT 2 was designed to measure the level of conceptual astronomy knowledge among non-science major undergraduates, so the author acknowledges that it may underestimate amateur astronomers' knowledge of specific concepts important to their outreach. The ACS survey was administered online to self-selected volunteers who were reached through email. The bulk of the analysis included only the 900 respondents who self-identified as amateur astronomers who reported participation in some level of outreach. Response rates were disaggregated by categories relating to membership (and duration) in an astronomy club, frequency of participation in outreach, and level of formal education in astronomy. In each of these categories, analysis of variance (ANOVA) testing was applied to determine whether there were statistically significant differences between the subgroups. Next, Bonferroni post-hoc testing was applied to determine which subgroup differed.

The researcher located and contacted officers of astronomy clubs throughout the United States, via electronic means. Sources included the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's list of astronomy clubs, and information from astronomy magazines. The survey was also advertised on email lists and discussion boards. Astronomy clubs without an email contact address or a website presence would thus be less likely to be included in the sample, but their membership still had some possibility of seeing the survey advertised and of responding to it. The researcher was able to offer two incentives. First, they offered a drawing for a prize to respondents. Second, they offered to provide the aggregated data from all members of a club to any club that submitted 15 or more responses, thus providing some valuable and actionable information back to the club.

Because the survey was advertised broadly, it's not possible to know the proportion of possible respondents who did follow through on completing the survey. The survey was accessed 1628 times,1164 amateur astronomers responded, and 21 astronomy clubs submitted more than 12 responses from their members.


Overall, amateurs had a mean score of 76%; previous data allows this to be compared to the mean score, 47%, of undergraduates after completion of a single astronomy course. Club members with any formal astronomy education at the college level score even higher (85%). The study also found that amateur astronomers who are members of a club, as opposed to unaffiliated amateurs who work alone, have greater knowledge of basic astronomy concepts. The study found that amateur astronomers' astronomy knowledge increased with the amount of time they spent in an astronomy club. This could be because of a confounding correlation between greater interest in astronomy and dedication to an astronomy club, but the data does suggest that the correlation is independent of any formal training in science. Formal college-level coursework in astronomy-related areas (including physics) increased knowledge if a degree in that discipline was obtained, but those with more than two courses did not have an appreciably higher level of astronomical knowledge than those who took only one or two courses. Amateur astronomers who frequently participate in outreach have higher scores, but they also tend to be long-term club members. Amateur astronomers across all educational categories have similar rates of occasional participation in outreach. Since more knowledgeable members are more likely to frequently participate in outreach, members of the public have an increased chance of interacting with someone with a high level of basic astronomy knowledge. Additionally, amateur astronomers with no formal training achieved the same score (67%) as undergraduates with three astronomy courses under their belts (66%). However, because of the wide range of scores, the data indicate that some amateur astronomy outreach is conducted by individuals with inadequate knowledge of key concepts.

The author suggests that amateur astronomers who join astronomy clubs receive support that allows them, over time, to build their astronomy knowledge. For amateurs interested in outreach or in building a body of knowledge about astronomical concepts, the support and structure of a club may be a useful strategy. In terms of outreach and informal education, the most reliable sources will be those with some formal education in astronomy and two or more years of membership in an astronomy club.

Descriptive: Survey/questionnaire

The survey was implemented from June 2003 to August 2003.



United States (responses were received from other countries, but were eliminated).

Informal ed: General public


Communications/Public Engagement

STEM literacy

Teaching and learning in informal settings

Astronomy: Origin and/or evolution of the universe

Astronomy: Size and/or scale of the Universe

Astronomy: Stars, nebulae, and/or galaxies

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