Navajo Sky: Education Modules for Digital Planetariums

Project Name:
The Navajo Sky: Education Modules for Digital Planetariums

Project Description:
The Navajo Sky: Education Modules for Digital Planetariums is a 4-Year NASA project, NNXIOAE73G, granted to the Indigenous Education Institute (IEI), a Native-owned non-profit organization headquartered in Friday Harbor, WA, in collaboration with University of California, Space Science laboratory. Dr. David Begay is the PI and Co-I Dr. Nancy C. Maryboy from IEI. Dr. Bryan Mendez, scientist, is from the University of California.

The major goal of the Navajo Sky project is to develop eight sets of educational digital planetarium modules that feature authentic Navajo sky stories, complementary Western astronomy vignettes, compelling features from NASA space science missions, and accompanying classroom activities consistent with NASA’s overarching support to cultivate diversity and work with under-represented minority institutions. Our broad objectives and activities are to engage Navajo (and other Native) youths in their own sky traditions, build an appreciation for Indigenous sky knowledge in non-Native youths, and introduce both audiences to engaging ideas in Western astronomy and NASA space science. Navajo people, including other Native Americans, will gain a new appreciation of both their own indigenous sky knowledge and of Western astronomy. Simultaneously, Western planetariums, through development of the education modules, will gain an awareness and appreciation of the depth of Navajo sky knowledge and bring such authentic representations of Indigenous observation-based skies to their audiences.

Lead Institution:
Indigenous Education Institute

The primary goal of the Navajo Sky Project is to create eight sets of digital planetarium modules and an accompanying relevant educational activity package that presents Navajo sky stories in ways that honor the authentic Navajo knowledge contained within them and are coupled with engaging segments on Western astronomy and current NASA space science. These materials will be designed to have a positive impact on Native youths’ appreciation of Indigenous star knowledge and Western science; on Western youths’ appreciation of the validity of culturally based approaches to understanding the sky; and on increasing interest in NASA-related science, engineering, and technology careers among all youths.

The Navajo Sky project enables researchers to develop a working collaboration between Indigenous Education Institute and University of California, Berkeley as NASA funded partners. This collaboration has helped to develop relevant protocols and the means for bringing Indigenous knowledge into the environment of a digital planetarium. Most importantly, it also serves as a demonstration project for other Native American projects to follow in the future.

Number of K-12 Teachers, Direct Interactions, FY12 (From OEPM): 12
Number of K-12 Students, Direct Interactions, FY12 (From OEPM): 1466

Effectiveness and Impact:
Evaluation findings and impact statements:
We have findings from multiple formative evaluation activities. These were intended to provide feedback to the project leadership team rather than indicate the program’s overall outcomes and impact. All evaluation findings to date should be read within this framework of supporting project development and growth, rather than a summative or impact evaluation.

Key Findings and Recommendations
This section summarizes key findings from formative testing with students and teachers, as well as the evaluators’ own observations. Recommendations are included where appropriate. These are meant as suggestions with the understanding there are many considerations in the development of the modules and it may not be possible to address every recommendation.

  • Native and non-Native students responded positively to the Navajo Sky shows and were appreciative of having various worldviews shared with them, as this was not necessarily a part of their everyday curriculum. For some, it was the first glimpse of another culture’s (non-Western) knowledge of astronomy; even some of the Navajo students, who live in an urban environment and are likely disconnected from their culture in many ways, conveyed that this was their first introduction to the Navajo constellation stories. The Navajo Sky shows clearly are an important means to deepen or reconnect Navajo youth with their cultural knowledge, as well as a way to instill appreciation in non-Native youth for other cultural worldviews of science.

  • Native and non-Native students clearly gained understanding of themes and concepts from both the Navajo and Western components of the shows. They shared many examples of new realizations and learning as a result of experiencing the Navajo Sky planetarium shows. Perhaps based on the different nature of the Navajo and Western components, students tended to express learning around Navajo cosmology in terms of broader concepts (e.g. the use of stars to track the seasons and plan for planting), while they tended to convey discreet facts about the Western science modules (e.g. the sun is 8 light-hours away; many stars are actually double stars, etc.). Recommendation: We suggest finding ways to better align the nature and tone of the Navajo and Western components so that the second piece builds upon the first and is more narrative (rather than fact-based).

  • The Navajo Sky shows created a great deal of interest in students about both Navajo cosmology and Western astronomy. Students were able to share multiple examples of aspects that sparked their interest. In particular, they were drawn to the Coyote story and wanted to learn more Navajo stories; and, on the Western side, were interested in learning more about the origin of the stars, the expansion of the universe, how planets were created, and whether there’s life on other planets. 

  • Students appreciated the immersive experience of the portable dome, and for many this was the first time they experienced such an environment. The full sensory experience of the dome clearly supported the students’ interest and engagement in the show. When asked to share their favorite parts, students often sighted the colorful visuals of when Coyote throws the stars into the sky, the colorful “star lines”, and the constellation images. Recommendation: It is important to note that the Navajo students from NACA were not able to see the show in the portable dome due to weather issues and technical difficulties. Native school environments may be such that the dome does not fit in any indoor space (e.g. if classrooms are all in portable structures and there is no large auditorium), so extra care needs to be taken to plan for alternatives that ensure these students get the full experience of the shows. Also, to make the dome experience culturally as well as physically immersive, it was suggested that the dome be set up as a Hogan by facing the doorway east and having students sit according to the Dine cultural etiquette.

  • Navajo students in particular pointed out that the western science was conveyed as “fact” when it is actually a theory. For example, one student questioned that the Big Bang is fact, suggesting that it should be conveyed as a theory of how the universe began. For this audience in particular, it will be important not to present one worldview as “fact” (science) and the other as not (Navajo cosmology). Non-native students also tended to talk about the two components in terms of the “real” science and the Navajo “stories” (meaning, in their worldview, something that is not true). Recommendation: Some suggestions here are to focus on how science is always changing based on new understanding and research evidence; to use a narrative, rather than didactic/authoritative, voice in the western modules; and to make more direct connections between the Navajo and Western modules. Having one narrator for both modules would optimize the balance of worldviews. For example, the North Star (Central Fire/Polaris) presents a perfect opportunity to align the two components; while the Native view should come first, the science could be used to explain why the north star appears to remain still while other stars and constellations rotate. 

  • The shows may not be appropriate for some communities that have cultural philosophies prohibiting the showing of deities. During our formative evaluation in New Mexico, the Santo Domingo Pueblo had to cancel our visit because they realized the planetarium show included images of kachinas that were not appropriate for their students to see. Recommendation: Considerations of context and pre-planning needs to happen early enough so that the schools or communities have time to respond to culturally specific needs. Perhaps a full description of the show and what it includes could be shared with schools well in advance of a scheduled visit to allow time for internal approval.

  • Students had some difficulty following the story line between the Navajo and Western modules. For example, students said they were confused going back and forth between the two components. Recommendation: Perhaps presenting all the Dine and then all the Western together would flow better; or, alternately, aligning the two components more closely in terms of narration, voice-over, tone, and concepts would make for a more cohesive experience and would not feel so “choppy” in terms of moving between the two worldviews. For example, using the same narrator for both components would be helpful; as well as finding as many direct links in concepts between the two and building off one another. Also, while the transition text is really helpful in drawing out the key concepts in the Navajo modules, the connection to the Western modules is less clear.

  • Students had some difficulty understanding the narration and some of the text. When asked what wasn't so clear or understandable in the shows, some students said it was either hard to hear the narration at times, it was too fast, or they had difficulty moving back and forth between the Navajo and English translations. Recommendation: Increasing following of narration if possible; preparing students to be in the dome space, such as pointing out that even whispers echo in the space and can prevent others from hearing the show; increase size and clarity of written text; and include voice-over of written text where possible for those unable to read or who are visually impaired. Also, we recommend preparing students for the use of Dine (Navajo) language in the shows, such as by asking about languages other than English spoken in their home or family; and explaining how the Dine is spoken first and then translated into English.

  • Some of the non-Native students conveyed stereotypical or romanticized understandings of Navajo culture. For example, many students talked about the Navajo people in the past tense, or asked naive questions such as “How did the Navajo people have coffee?” They also showed lack of cultural understanding and sensitivity, such as one student asking “how can a large family live in such as small place (Hogan)?” Recommendation: Pre-activities will need to provide considerable orientation to the Navajo culture and environment, both historically and currently. A map of the Navajo Nation as it exists today would be a helpful tool for orienting students at the beginning of the first Navajo module as well; as well as orienting them to the demographics of all Native peoples living in the US today. In addition, a list of books/stories/history teachers can access to prepare students for the unit in advance, particularly around Navajo culture, in order to reduce misconceptions and the reinforcing of stereotypes.

  • The Western modules may have too much information and too many technical terms, as several students commented that it was hard to follow all of the concepts and terms in the Western modules. Recommendation: Reduce the number of concepts and questions for western science modules, focus on fewer concepts but in more depth; reduce technical language where possible; align more directly with the Navajo content (e.g. explaining why the Central Fire/Polaris does not appear to move). The example of how the Dine people have used the double star of the big dipper as a test for good vision is another good model for linking the two components more closely.

An impact evaluation has not been conducted for the Navajo Sky project and was not part of the evaluation plan submitted in the proposal, which focused on formative evaluation.


While an impact evaluation has not been conducted, formative evaluation has shown extremely positive feedback from target audiences, including elementary and middle school students and educators, as well as museum staff and visitors. The Navajo Sky program seems to be meeting its intended goals of increasing awareness of Navajo cosmology and western science, as well as appreciation of multiple worldviews of the sky. The evaluation team views these outcomes as essential to engaging native youth and broadening participation in STEM. Based on formative evaluation, the project is on track and appropriately developing towards its intended goals and objectives.