Join the 32-Hour Hangout-A-Thon for Space Education and Outreach

In the latest budget proposal for NASA, it appears as though one of NASA’s jewels — education and pubic outreach – is going to take a huge hit. The proposal seeks to slash NASA’s education budget by about a third, going from $137 million to $94 million. Also proposed is an initiative to combine (and in effect, water down) what NASA does by consolidating different educational efforts across the nation.

The American Astronomical Society issued a statement saying that the proposed cuts “would dismantle some of the nation’s most inspiring and successful STEM education assets.”

Dr. Pamela Gay, who heads up a big educational and citizen science effort with Cosmoquest, has written passionately about how these proposed cuts as well as the current sequestration of US governmental agencies will affect not only her work with education and citizen science, but educational programs for schools and universities across the US. Additionally, people who work in these areas face job losses.

So faced with funding cuts, the Cosmoquest team has decided to try an old-fashioned tele-thon (remember Jerry Lewis and his MDA telethons every year?) using new technology.

On June 15-16, Pamela Gay and Nicole Gugliucci are hosting a 32-hour Google Hangout on Air – a Hangout-a-thon – to raise money to support public engagement in science.

It starts at Noon EDT, 16:00 UTC on June 15, 2013 and will feature guests like Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer), NASA scientists and educators, the cast of Beyond the Wall, Mat Kaplan from Planetary Radio, and our very own Fraser Cain. Yours truly might make an appearance as well, beaming in from the middle of nowhere in Minnesota.

A complete schedule of guests and events can be found here.
Facebook Event Page

If you aren’t able to donate money, Pamela has written a great post about all the different things you can do to help.

As the CosmoQuest team said, they want to make sure astronomy education survives and remains strong. “While one team, and one telethon can’t fix everything, they hope this event can raise awareness, while protected one small corner of astronomy research and education.”

Education and technology are so important for our world’s future; if you can support this effort in any way, it would be greatly appreciated.

You can make a donation (tax deductible in the US where laws allow) through PayPal here.

The main G+ page for the Hangout-A-Thon

Proposed Changes to NASA’s Education and Outreach – A View from the Outside

The first Moon landing inspired a whole generation of scientists and engineers. And NASA, to its great credit, didn’t rest on those laurels: Outreach programs attached to the different NASA missions became a standard mode of operation. Some have reached legendary status. Without outreach, and the broad public support it engendered, the Hubble Space Telescope quite probably wouldn’t have had its faulty vision corrected.

And, not least thanks to the Internet, many NASA resources are available worldwide, and have a substantial impact on outreach efforts in other countries. (And in case you were wondering: yes, that’s the reason that I as a German am writing this blog post about NASA and, later on, about US policy. We profit from NASA resources – thanks! – and if NASA outreach loses, you lose, and we lose.)

One of the reasons science outreach by NASA and similar organizations is so powerful is the sheer fascination of black holes, distant galaxies, planets around distant stars, human space-travel, the big bang, or plucky little rovers exploring Mars. But there is another important factor, and that is the direct involvement of scientists and engineers who are immersed in, and passionate about, what they do. Quoting from a slightly different context:

“[The] ability to impart knowledge, it seems to me, has very little to do with technical method. […] It consists, first, of a natural talent for dealing with children, for getting into their minds, for putting things in a way that they can comprehend. And it consists, secondly, of a deep belief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a concern about it amounting to a sort of passion.

A man who knows a subject thoroughly, a man so soaked in it that he eats it, sleeps it and dreams it—that man can always teach it with success, no matter how little he knows of technical pedagogy. That is because there is enthusiasm in him, and because enthusiasm is almost as contagious as fear of the barber’s itch. […] This passion, so unordered and yet so potent, explains the capacity for teaching that one frequently observes in scientific men of high attainments in their specialties […]”

We might not fear the barber’s itch quite as much as they did in the 1920s, when American journalist and essayist, H. L. Mencken, wrote those lines. But Mencken’s main message is as true now as it was back then. The best science outreach projects I’ve seen — and as managing scientist of a Center for Astronomy Education and Outreach I try to keep reasonably up to date — directly involve people whose enthusiasm for their subject is contagious — scientists communicating their own research, or outreach scientists and educators working closely with researchers.

That’s the reason why I’m worried about the future of NASA education and public outreach. There is, right now, a major effort by the Obama administration to restructure federal STEM education efforts (STEM being Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Apparently, the committee known as CoSTEM that is the driving force of this initiative didn’t do a very good job in engaging outreach practitioners in a dialogue about the changes, because the first thing many of those active in the field heard about the sweeping changes were ominous statements in the administration’s NASA Budget Proposal for Fiscal Year 2014, published on April 10 (PDF 34 MB).

NASA's Leland Melvin talks with Tweet-up participants at the STS-133 launch in February, 2011. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.
NASA’s Leland Melvin talks with Tweet-up participants at the STS-133 launch in February, 2011. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.

The proposal is somewhat sketchy on the details, but what was there was worrying enough for a number stakeholders to speak up: Phil Plait, who used to be himself involved in mission-based outreach, has commented on the “bad news”, and Pamela Gay, whose group is responsible for CosmoQuest, among other projects, has weighed in (also here) — her group largely depends on the kind of NASA funding that could be eliminated in the restructuring. More recently, the American Astronomical Society has issued a Statement on Proposed Elimination of NASA Science Education & Public Outreach Programs.

On June 4, there was a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (the link has an archived webcast of the hearing, as well as some written statements). Judging by some of the answers at the hearing, the implementation of the restructuring hasn’t been fully worked out yet — but what information is out there is indeed somewhat worrying. It sounds like an efficiency-and-evaluation drive with little regard for the power of scientific passion.

The proposal calls for slashing NASA’s budget for education by almost a third. It promises that NASA’s “education efforts will be fundamentally restructured into a consolidated education program funded through the Office of Education, which will coordinate closely with the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution”. In particular, the consolidation concerns the outreach activities connected directly to the various missions: “mission-based K-12 education, public outreach, and engagement activities, traditionally funded within programmatic accounts, will be incorporated into the Administration’s new STEM education paradigm in order to reach an even wider range of students and educators”.

The Smithsonian Institution will take the lead on informal outreach and engagement. It’s not quite clear what that means, but they will get $25 million to do it. They have apparently promised to interact very closely with the mission agencies they would be “helping” in their role of “clearing house” for this kind of activity. Does that mean that they will become the main agency to develop outreach materials — will NASA missions have to provide them with information about their science, and receive custom-made (or not) outreach kits in return? Or will they have more of an advisory capacity — will they somehow assist NASA outreach units to develop material, and help with the distribution? Your guess is as good as mine.

A number of committee members expressed their concern in this direction, as well, asking about the role of their local institutions such as science museums, STEM initiatives and the like in the new scheme. The answers weren’t very encouraging. There was talk of strong partnerships being developed, but apparently the desire to build partnerships didn’t go as deep as actually trying to communicate with those stakeholders beforehand.

Committee member Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) actually raised the matter that is my main concern in this blog post: she talked about the importance of engaging science practitioners and engineers directly, having them interact with school students; she also talked about the excitement for science that NASA has been so good at generating.

Again, the answers weren’t very encouraging (this is around 1h 40m into the hearing). The NSF representative (Joan Ferrini-Mundy) talked about the increased reach the Department of Education could provide, and the NASA representative (Leland D. Melvin) went down the same road, praising how the Department of Education was helping NASA to make their hands-on activities available in more states than ever before. Neither appeared to have understood that the question was about something altogether different than mere efficiency in the distribution of educational materials.

Participation in classrooms from NASA personel might be a thing of the past. Here, Kristyn Damadeo from a project called SAGE III on ISS project reads to students during Earth Science Week. Credit: NASA
Participation in classrooms from NASA personel might be a thing of the past. Here, Kristyn Damadeo from a project called SAGE III on ISS project reads to students during Earth Science Week. Credit: NASA

And while the inspiration by astronauts interacting with school students, or the excitement generated by the direct contact with researchers, was at least mentioned during the hearing, the role of outreach scientists — as mediators with a background in science and a job in science communication — was completely absent from the hearing and, incidentally, from the CoSTEM documents.

To me, all of this appears to add up to a move into precisely the wrong direction. For powerful science outreach, you want to channel the passion of the researchers/engineers through the educators and outreach scientists; to that end, you want the connections between those groups to be as close as possible.

A small-to-medium-size outreach team working directly with one or a few missions fits the bill. Replace local teams with large, centralized entities responsible for a much wider portfolio of activities and missions, and you are bound to lose those immediate connections. So, by all means, consolidate where consolidation makes sense — centralized distribution, centralized services such as graphics or video editing, web services, consultation with experienced educators, a school partnership network coordinated by the Department of Education, or what have you — but mission-based outreach scientists and educators do not fall into that category.

If the “new paradigm” widens the gap between the scientists and engineers on the one hand and the educators and outreach scientists on the other, that’s bad news for NASA outreach.

The good news is that the committee demonstrated considerable interest in the matter — and a healthy dose of skepticism. Several members talked about the questions they had received from constituents and stakeholders about the reform. Some remarked on having seldomly seen the meeting room as crowded.

After June 4, committee members apparently still have two weeks to submit their written questions to the witnesses: to presidential science advisor John Holdren, NSF assistant director in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Joan Ferrini-Mundy, and Leland D. Melvin, who’s the Associate Administrator for Education at NASA. And a number of committee members (watch the webcast!) seemed quite aware that there are open questions, reasons for skepticism, and room for discussion.

So there’s your chance to do something for NASA (and other agencies’) outreach: Here is a list of the committee members. Express your concern. Ask them what the changes will mean for existing programs (here is a complete list of the programs concerned). Remind them that this is not only about abstract numbers, but about people. The way things are organized right now, there are many individual outreach scientists, researchers, engineers, educators who’ve spent years gaining experience with, and coming up with innovative ideas for, communicating their science. That’s a considerable resource right there — so what will happen with those people and their expertise under the new scheme?

If you have a favourite mission, outreach program or activity (Chandra, CosmoQuest, Hubble, …), ask the committee members how it will be affected by the consolidation. What will happen to the people who made the program/activity what it is? And do so soon, so the committee members can pass their questions and concerns on to the people responsible for this restructuring. This restructuring seems to be something of a turning point for federally funded science outreach in the US (and, yes, for all of us in the rest of the world who profit from that outreach as well). If you or your children have profited from any of those outreach activities, here’s your chance to give something back.

World Space Week ( Oct 4th – 10th ) — Join the Fun!

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What is World Space Week?

Founded in 1981, World Space Week Association is one of the world’s oldest space education organizations. As a partner of the United Nations in the global coordination of World Space Week, WSWA recruits and supports a worldwide network of coordinators and participants. WSWA is a non-government, nonprofit, international organization, based in the United States.

World Space Week is an international celebration of science and technology, and how each benefits the human condition. In 1999 The United Nations General Assembly declared that World Space Week will be held each year from October 4-10, commemorating two notable space-related events:

The annual kick-off date of October 4th corresponds with the October 4th 1957 launch of the first human-made Earth satellite, Sputnik 1.

The end date of October 10th corresponds with the October 10th 1967 signing of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activites of States in the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Here’s some information from their F.A.Q on how you can participate in World Space Week, either by volunteering or by attending an event.

Where and how is World Space Week celebrated?

World Space Week is open to everyone – government agencies, industry, non-profit organizations, teachers, or even individuals can organize events to celebrate space. WSW is coordinated by the United Nations with the support of WSWA and local coordinators in many countries.

What are the benefits of World Space Week?

WSW educates people around the world about the benefits they receive from space and encourages greater use of space for sustainable economic development. WSW also demonstrates public support for space programs and excites children about learning and their future.
Some of the other benefits include promoting institutions around the world that are involved in space and fostering a sense of international cooperation in space outreach and education.

How can schools participate?

This event is ideal for teachers to promote student interest in science and math. To encourage participation, World Space Week Association gives various educational awards each year.

Sign at NASA's Johnson Space Center announcing World Space Week. Photo Credit: NASA/WSWA

What can I do for World Space Week?

If you’d like to become involved with WSW you can:

  • Volunteer for World Space Week Association
  • Organize an event directly
  • Help expand and coordinate World Space Week
  • Encourage teachers and students to do space-related activities
  • Become a Volunteer
  • Hold an Event During World Space Week
  • If you hold an event, be sure to add your event to the World Space Week calendar and tell the media and your regional WSW coordinator about your planned event. You can also order World Space Week posters and display them in your community.

    If you’d like to find a World Space Week event in your area, visit:http://www.worldspaceweek.org/calendar_2011.php

    You can learn more about World Space Week at: http://www.worldspaceweek.org

    Source: World Space Week Association

    Student Alert: GRAIL Naming Contest – Essay Deadline November 11

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    Student Alert ! – Here’s your once in a lifetime chance to name Two NASA robots speeding at this moment to the Moon on a super science mission to map the lunar gravity field. They were successfully launched from the Earth to the Moon on September 10, 2011. Right now the robots are called GRAIL A and GRAIL B. But, they need real names that inspire. And they need those names real soon. The goal is to “capture the spirit and excitement of lunar exploration”, says NASA – the US Space Agency.

    NASA needs your help and has just announced an essay writing contest open to students in Grades K – 12 at schools in the United States. The deadline to submit your essay is November 11, 2011. GRAIL stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory.”

    The rules state you need to pick two names and explain your choices in 500 words or less in English. Your essay can be any length up to 500 words – even as short as a paragraph. But, DO NOT write more than 500 words or your entry will be automatically disqualified.

    Learn more about the GRAIL Essay Naming Contest here:

    Read all the Official Contest Rules here:

    Download the Naming Contest Submission Form here:

    Students: NASA Wants You to Name that GRAIL !
    Write an Essay and name these twin Lunar mapping satellites. NASA’s twin GRAIL A & B science probes are now streaking to the Moon and arrive on New Year’s Day 2012. This picture shows how they looked, mounted side by side, during launch preparations prior to blasting off for the Moon on Sept. 10, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

    The GRAIL A and B lunar spaceships are twins – just like those other awe inspiring robots “Spirit” and “Opportunity” , which were named by a 10 year old girl student and quickly became famous worldwide and forever because of their exciting science missions of Exploration and Discovery.They arrive in Lunar Orbit on New Year’s Day 2012.

    Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10 from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer

    And there is another way that students can get involved in NASA’s GRAIL mission.

    GRAIL A & B are both equipped with four student-run MoonKAM cameras. Students can suggest targets for the cameras. Then the cameras will take close-up views of the lunar surface, taking tens of thousands of images and sending them back to Earth.

    “Over 1100 middle schools have signed up to participate in the MoonKAM education and public outreach program to take images and engage in exploration,” said Prof. Maria Zuber of MIT.

    Prof. Zuber is the top scientist on the mission and she was very excited to announce the GRAIL Essay Naming contest right after the twin spaceships blasted off to the Moon on Sep 10, 2011 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

    What is the purpose of GRAIL ?

    “GRAIL simply put, is a ‘Journey to the Center of the Moon’,” says Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.

    “It will probe the interior of the moon and map its gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before. We will learn more about the interior of the moon with GRAIL than all previous lunar missions combined. Precisely knowing what the gravity fields are will be critical in helping to land future human and robotic spacecraft. The moon is not very uniform. So it’s a dicey thing to fly orbits around the moon.”

    “There have been many missions that have gone to the moon, orbited the moon, landed on the moon, brought back samples of the moon,” said Zuber. “But the missing piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the moon is what the deep interior is like.”

    So, what are you waiting for.

    Start thinking and writing. Students – You can be space explorers too !

    Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
    GRAIL Lunar Blastoff Gallery
    GRAIL Twins Awesome Launch Videos – A Journey to the Center of the Moon
    NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core
    GRAIL Unveiled for Lunar Science Trek — Launch Reset to Sept. 10
    Last Delta II Rocket to Launch Extraordinary Journey to the Center of the Moon on Sept. 8
    NASAs Lunar Mapping Duo Encapsulated and Ready for Sept. 8 Liftoff
    GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad
    GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery

    How a Rubber Chicken is Spreading the Word about NASA, Space Missions and Science

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    Here’s a headline you don’t see too often: “Rubber Chicken Turned NASA Mission Mascot Embarks on a Flight to Space.” Seriously, this is a true story. If you’ve not heard of Camilla Corona, or Camilla SDO as she is sometimes called, you probably haven’t been paying attention to one of the most exciting current space missions, the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Camilla is virtually everywhere in the world of social media, and she travels around the country – and the planet – spreading the word about what’s going on with our Sun and how SDO is helping us learn more about it. As mission mascot, she is leading the way – and setting the bar pretty high for other NASA missions to follow – about how to get the public interested in space and science.

    “People ask, ‘what does a rubber chicken have to do with a science mission?’ but as long as we get people’s attention, we can then divert it to what SDO does,” said Romeo Durscher, Camilla’s PR assistant and ‘bodyguard.’ “However, we didn’t know it would go this far when we started this.”

    Camilla oversees the images coming back from the Solar Dyamics Observatory's instruments at Lockheed Martin facility in California. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.

    The story of Camilla goes back to the early days of SDO at Goddard Space Flight Center, when mission scientist Barbara Thompson introduced Camilla as something funny for the science team.

    “Barbara was very persistent – she brought little Camillas and rubber chickens to all the science meetings to lighten up the room,” Durscher said.” The question always is, ‘why Camilla?’ and the official answer is because she is the same color as the sun. Over the years, Camilla has just become more and more integrated into the education and public outreach side of the mission.”

    “Camilla started as an inter-office joke and soon became the mascot for the science side of the mission,” said Aleya Van Doren, the formal education lead for SDO. “It is not uncommon for someone who has been working on SDO for awhile to receive a rubber chicken as sort of a ‘you’ve earned your keep’ award. She’s a great moral booster for the science team, as well as being a wonderful ‘hook’ to get the public interested in the mission.”

    Van Doren said the fun part is bringing Camila to public events or classrooms. “She is a great conversation starter with kids, especially with elementary children. Our main focus is getting the science out to the public, so whatever means we can use to draw in people’s interest and see the amazing things that SDO is doing, we consider it worthwhile.”

    I’ve personally seen children — as well as adults — literally melt when meeting Camilla and get very excited about interacting with her.

    As far as the public side of things, Van Doren said they are pleasantly surprised at the amount of attention her social media channels on Twitter and Facebook have been bringing to the mission.

    “Romeo does a great job bringing her around to various places. Her schedule is quite full for a chicken. I would be really tired if I was that busy,” Van Doren said.

    Which begs the question: just how many Camillas are there?

    “That is a guarded secret,” Van Doren said, “but there is really only one official Camilla. We are very careful to make sure she is only in one place at a time. But sometimes airfare gets expensive, so she’ll have a body double in one place. Jet-setting around the country can sometimes be difficult.”

    Durscher is the keeper of what is now the official Camilla, but confirmed that she does indeed have some body doubles. At first, it was easy to have Camilla be in several places at once. That was before she started wearing clothes.

    Camilla wears a spacesuit in hopes of catching a ride with the astronauts heading out on the STS-133 mission. Credit: SDO

    “Our rubber chicken had the SDO mission pin on her left side, and that was Camilla,” Durscher said. “We had one at Goddard, one at Stanford University, and another at our education office, so there were several Camillas, and we had the story that she was travelling here and there, but now it gets a little more complicated.”

    Cynthia Butcher, a fan of Camilla, knits specially made outfits for a rubber chicken, including a spacesuit, a Star Trek uniform, an “I Dream of Jeannie” outfit, and many more.

    “Cynthia is a wonderful person, one of the first followers of Camilla on Twitter and Facebook,” Durscher said. “She really enjoyed what Camilla was doing, and said that Camilla should have a flight suit and that she would make her one. When we got the outfits, we were thrilled. But now we have to have a storyline for why we sometimes we might see Camilla without any clothes on – maybe the suit will be in the dry cleaning, or something.”

    Camilla with astronaut Robert Curbeam. Credit: SDO

    Camilla has met astronauts, trained at Johnson Space Center, attended World Space Week in Nigeria and a science fair in Malaysia, been on hand at many NASA Tweet-ups and launches, and even given a speech at the Smithsonain Ignite event at the Smithsonian Museum – well, actually Durscher ended up speaking for her, as Camilla lost her voice shouting at all the animals in the Washington DC Zoo the day before.

    But Camilla’s main goal is to educate, inspire (especially to inspire girls to go into science and engineering) to build community and have fun — as well as bringing the beautiful, stunning and wonderful images and data from SDO into the classroom.

    “We have lots of things teachers can use to educate their students about the Sun — hands-on experiments, beautiful images — and students can have the opportunity interact with mission scientists,” Durscher said.

    Camilla and her crew pose with the poster for the BTS-1 (Balloon Transport System).

    But now Camilla embarks on what might be her greatest adventure ever. She is actually going to space. Camilla will be going to the edge of space in a weather balloon with a camera for the Camilla Space Weather Project.

    “We are using that launch as the hook for new program we are doing to get the public interested in space weather forecasts,” said Van Doren.

    Space weather refers to conditions on the Sun and in the solar wind that impact Earth’s atmosphere and can influence space and ground based technology and even human health.

    “We have a page of a series of questions that people can go through to make a prediction of whether a space weather event is going to take place – such as the bright flares SDO has observed recently, and if those events will affect Earth, such as auroras being visible, or if it could cause any problems with satellites or related technology,” said Van Doren.

    Launch is currently scheduled for this weekend, May 8 from the University of Houston central campus. Launch preparations begin at 10 AM, and will be webcast on UStream.

    “We want to make sure that when Camilla launches it will be safe, so we’ve been having people make a space weather forecast and see whether or not it will be good conditions for launching to the upper atmosphere. Of course we don’t want Camilla to be bombarded with radiation, so classrooms have been making recommendations if this will be a good time to go or not,” Van Doren said.

    Durscher said that as of Friday, the mission was go.

    Camilla, Skye Bleu, and Fuzz Aldrin get ready for their mission. Credit: SDO

    Camilla is not going to space alone. She’s traveling with Fuzz Aldrin from “Bears on Patrol” which provides US police officers with free teddy bears to use in cases involving small children, as well as a stuffed pig, Skye Bleu, the STEM (science technology engineering and math) outreach mascot for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronnautics (AIAA) and a patch to represent Smokey Bear.

    “Our goal is to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and explorers,” Durscher said, “and we’ll make sure that Camilla and her crew will come back alive.”

    Let’s hope so. Camilla has lots more work to do spreading the word about NASA, space and science.

    Me and Camilla.