Friday, October 5, 2012

1 teacher + 1 astronomer = Project ASTRO

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

After the initial introduction, the workshop was packed with a variety of presentations and hands-on activities to illustrate to both teachers and astronomers the diversity of provided materials and lessons plans which can be used in the classroom and even for field trips.
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.
Another activity on day one illustrated the importance of a dark sky for astronomers and how light pollution has become more and more of a problem over the last decades. Light pollution means that due to artificial light sources at night, such as street lamps, neon signs etc, one is less and less able to see the band of the Milky Way and stars in the night sky because they are a lot fainter than light sources on the ground. In the picture on the right you can see the glow of Tucson at night as seen from Kitt Peak Observatory located about 80 miles to the Southwest. Now, Tucson is already a lot darker at night than other cities due to the light pollution consciousness for the nearby Observatory, but you can still see a lot of it. If you want to participate in logging light pollution, check out the Globe at Night website!

Meteorites at the LPL meteorite collection
As I mentioned above, Kitt Peak Observatory is really close. In order to give the teachers an idea of the observational side of astronomy the afternoon and evening of the first workshop day featured a trip to OSIRIS REx and Kitt Peak.

4-m Mayall Telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory
First stop was a visit to the OSIRIS REx (of course an acronym; it stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) mission building in Tucson which is part of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) of the University of Arizona. In brief words, the mission plans to send a spacecraft to a nearby asteroid, observe it for a while, then snatch some material off it and bring it back to Earth. The data collected during this mission will then be analysed to help understand our solar system, life in the Universe and our risk of being hit by one of these asteroids. One of the astronomers working on this project showed us more details about the mission and its planning as well as some real meteorites found on Earth and some of them really were quite big! Currently, there is a naming contest underway to provide the asteroid that will be visited by the spacecraft with a more memorable name than the usual numbers and letters that get assigned to such objects. If you're under 18 and want to give it a try, check out details and rules about this contest!

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!
Day 2 of the workshop was all about scales in the Universe, particularly the solar system. First, the teachers were presented with an idea of the distance between the planets and their respective size using peppercorns and football fields under the hot Arizona sun. Then back inside they were guided towards modeling our planets with Play-doh, piece by piece, as shown in the picture.

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! 

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