Research Points at Astrophotography as a Gateway into Science

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Researchers at UC Riverside have used astrophotography as a portal to engage non-science majors students into science, and report their findings in the International Journal of STEM Education.



Astronomy is a gateway into science. The concepts and questions it acknowledges create a sense of wonder and awe. Its biggest assets are the riveting images produced with the advent of space telescopes, adaptive optics, robotized missions, and the communications era, which inspire us and promise answers to big questions.

“Over 200,000 non-science major students enroll in introductory astronomy elective classes every year in the U.S.A. alone, and for many college students, it is their only encounter with a natural science,” said Mario De Leo-Winkler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Riverside. “Given its interdisciplinary links, astronomy is a particularly appropriate vehicle for teaching science to a wide audience.”

Amateur astronomers produce dozens of new discoveries every year, driven by a childhood or adolescent interest in astronomy which was not pursued as a career opportunity. With the overwhelming amounts of data that exist today, the ability to mine and reduce data is of utter importance in any field of research. However, there are some factors that keep a large fraction of the general audience from participating or using natural sciences. One of the main such factors is mathematical anxiety, which is a feeling of tension and fear that accompanies math-related activities which threatens achievement and participation in the natural sciences.

Three researchers at UC Riverside created a new course on astrophotography designed for non-science major students. The course is a vehicle for teaching visually and experimentally, with a constructivist model. Constructivism is a learning theory, where people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiences and reflection, encouraging students to be active in learning. Constructivism has also been proven to reduce mathematical anxiety in the classroom. The course is designed to give an overview of modern astronomy, foster the use of a scientific lexicon, provide tools in data reduction and image processing methods. Data reduction is the transformation of numerical data into a simplified form (photons in the camera detector, in this case), and image processing allows for the best practices to get clear and useful images. Finally, the goal of the course is to educated students that are knowledgeable of the natural sciences and educate potential amateur astronomers and citizen scientists


The research was recently published in the International Journal of STEM Education under the title “Astrophotography, a portal for engaging non-STEM majors in science.” Profs. Gabriela Canalizo and Gillian Wilson, co-authors of the paper and faculty members of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, found that due to the required hands-on approach of astrophotography, a high percentage of students reported a better understanding of how astronomical instruments work, the use of data reduction and image processing techniques, reported the course a very good exercise in science, and would consider taking astrophotography as a hobby, which has been shown to later produce amateur astronomers. The incentive to create potential citizen scientists is of special interest, as they are currently pivotal in data mining, especially in areas where big data is handled. Research shows that (among other reasons) interest and positive experiences in science earlier in life can help stimulate future individuals engaged in science. With a high percentage of the courses’ students majoring in social sciences, humanities, and arts, the researchers succeeded in seeding positive background experiences in the natural sciences that would have otherwise not been available to them, making them learned citizens unafraid of approaching science.

The experiences acquired at UC Riverside, during the two years the course has been offered, are reported in the research paper. The authors hope that astrophotography can be actively taken up elsewhere, as the results are very encouraging to use it as an effective educational tool to engage non-science majors in science.


The research paper has been published in the International Journal of STEM Education.
UCR Today’s news release.
Springer’s news release.


Image: The Moon photographed by UC Riverside students in the astrophotography courses.