Until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't heard about Project ASTRO. So what is Project ASTRO? Let me use the words of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific who founded the project in 1994:
"Project ASTRO™ is a national program that improves the teaching of astronomy and physical science by linking professional and amateur astronomers with local educators. Each astronomer is matched with an educator in a one-on-one partnership and commits to visiting the educator’s students at least four times during the school year. [...] The main focus of Project ASTRO educator-astronomer partnerships is hands-on, inquiry-based activities that put students in the position of acting like scientists – as they come to understand more about the universe (and science in general)."
Since its foundation nearly 20 years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area, the project has spread it wings and local partner sites have popped up all over the United States. Currently, there are more than 500 astronomer-teacher pairs who advocate astronomy and scientific thinking to more than 20,000 students per year.
Project ASTRO workshop
One of the local partners is NOAO in Tucson, AZ. Each year several introductory workshops are held for the teachers and astronomers. About 2 weeks ago I attended such a 2-day-workshop for Project ASTRO at NOAO as an astronomer, to be paired up with a teacher.
|Demonstration of the power of the sun using a Fresnel lens to |
melt metal. All images credit: Janine Pforr
|Demonstration of the power of the sun: |
the metal is smoking after a few seconds!
The kick-off activity for the teachers at the workshop was to sort the lunar phases into the right order using little pictures of the moon. Later the concept of the moon phases and their cause was illustrated using a bright lamp (a.k.a the sun) in the center of the room and "moon balls" held up by each of the astronomers who orbited around their teacher partner. This was also a great way to visualize the concept of solar and lunar eclipses. Since it was a sunny day, we also had the chance to observe the sun and some sun spots with the help of "sun spotters" and special solar telescopes equipped with filters to protect man and instrument (NEVER look at the sun without protection!). Then we got a live demonstration of the power of the sun from 2 workshop helpers ala "frying ants with a magnifying glass" just without ants, we are animal-friendly. The picture shows you how they managed to melt metal using the sun's rays and a special lens, called a Fresnel-lens, but don't try this at home, you could seriously injure yourself or others!
|Tucson's nightly glow as seen from Kitt Peak Observatory. |
This is what's called light pollution.
|Meteorites at the LPL meteorite collection|
|4-m Mayall Telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory|
On Kitt Peak, we got a tour of the 4-m Mayall Telescope and attended a nightly observing program as organised by the Kitt Peak's visitor center. The nightly observing program was divided into 2 parts. On the one hand, each participant used a star finder and constellations to orientate themselves on the night sky in order to find objects such as double stars, star clusters, and the Andromeda galaxy with binoculars. In fact, if you find yourself in an extremely dark spot at night, you can even see Andromeda with the naked eye! On the other hand, we looked through the visitor telescope at objects such as the Ring nebula, a left-over from a dying star.
|The finished play-doh planets, to scale!|
After visiting the neighbouring Flandrau planetarium for a demonstration on available planetarium shows for groups, we finished the activities by making comets using dry ice, water and dirt (again: don't try at home!). The sizzling "comets" are shown below.
|Left: cooking up comets! Right: a finished comet.|
Finally, teachers and astronomers had the chance to exchange expectations to the program and their Project ASTRO partner and started planning some of their activities and visits. The stone for a lot of activities, like star parties, is rolling and we will report back to you from some of these. For now, I am looking forward to working with my teacher and seeing the excitedly-glowing eyes of the school children when I tell them about our solar system, galaxies and the Universe!