Back to School Inspiration: Be That Light

Are you an educator, heading back to another year of teaching and need a little inspiration? — or do you know a teacher that is back in the classroom after summer break? Then this awesome little video is for you. It’s the latest from “Symphony of Science” and it features our friend Dr. Jeff Goldstein and a speech he made at the National Science Teachers Association Conference this year, “Science – It’s Not a Book of Knowledge … It’s a Journey.” Dr. Jeff is a science educator and planetary scientist and is the Director of National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. He is passionate about teaching and is admittedly “emotional about science,” as we all should be.

Here’s why he helped make this video: “Right now, in this very moment, we wanted to poetically and passionately reaffirm to teachers why they went into teaching, and for the millions of teachers across America, recognize their selfless and noble dedication to lighting the way. This is a heartfelt thank you to teachers for their unwavering dedication to the next generation.”

If you need more inspiration, see Dr. Jeff’s Blog on the Universe

Historic Opportunity for Students to Participate on “Extra” Shuttle Mission

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A new opportunity for students to be part of history and fly an experiment on what could be the last space shuttle mission has been announced by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) for the STS-135, the shuttle mission that might fly in June of 2011.

“We hope to get 50 communities and 100,000 students participating in the initiative which allows grade 5-14 student design of real experiments to fly aboard Atlantis, and engages entire communities,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein, the Director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education told Universe Today. “This is very unique opportunity for students and teachers to be part of a high visibility, keystone U.S. national STEM education program of the highest caliber.”

SSEP is a new program that launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC, a company that is working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

The company hopes to stimulate space station research by providing a very low-cost 1 kilogram platform that puts micro-gravity projects within the reach of universities and small companies, as well as elementary and secondary schools through SSEP. So, this is actually a commercial space program and not a NASA program.

This opportunity offers real research done on orbit, with students designing and proposing the experiments to fly in low Earth orbit.

Goldstein said the program is a U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives up to 3,200 students across a community—middle and high school students (grades 5-12), and/or undergraduates at 2-year community colleges (grades 13-14)—the ability to fly their own experiments in low Earth orbit, first aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle, and then later on the International Space Station.

For the STS-134 mission, now scheduled to launch in April 2011, 16 communities were chosen to participate from 447 student team proposals. Goldstein said the 16 selected experiments are now moving through formal NASA Flight Safety review.

But the end of the shuttle mission is not the end of this program – instead it is just the beginning. “This is meant to be a gateway to Phase 2 of the program, which will allow routine access to space for students conducting experiments, said Goldstein. “SSEP was designed to engage and inspire America’s next generation of scientists and engineers through immersion in real science. We believe that ‘student as scientist’ represents the very best in science education.”

What type of experiments would be accepted? Students and teachers should discuss what biological, chemical or physical system they would like to explore with no gravity off for 10 days. Examples of experiments are seed germination cell biology, life cycles of organisms, food preservation, and crystal growth. The SSEP program will help guide the teachers through implementation of the program in their classrooms.

Each participating school district will be provided an experiment slot in an easy-to-use real microgravity research mini-laboratory flying on Space Shuttle Atlantis. The SSEP center will then guide the school districts through an experiment design competition within the grade 5-12 range, which can be conducted across a single school, or district-wide to as many as 3,200 students. Student teams then design real experiments vying for your reserved slot on this historic flight, with designs constrained by mini-laboratory operation.

Other benefits of the program include a customized Blog for students and teachers to report on their program, and a design competition for each school to have a 4-inch x 4-inch emblem that we will fly aboard the Shuttle and returned to the school.

There is uncertainty, however, whether the STS-135 mission will fly. Funding for the additional STS-135 mission was authorized by Congress on September 29, 2010, and the authorization was signed by President Obama. NASA is currently awaiting Congressional allocation of funds for STS-135. On January 20, 2011, NASA formally added STS-135 to its launch schedule. Goldstein said there is now a high probability that STS-135 will indeed fly. But when it flies is the issue.

Because of the timing of when NASA needs to have a list of material that will be used in the experiments so that they can do a flight safety review, the SSEP program needs NASA to slip the launch date from June 28, 2011 until at least August 31, 2011. They fully expect this to occur given the significant launch slips that have occurred for STS-133 and STS-134, and the conversations already taking place in NASA.

But it is now time critical for schools to be able to participate. There is a proposal submission deadline of May 12, 2011. By the end of May, the flight experiments will be selected, so that NASA can be provided with the materials list 3 months in advance of launch.

For more information see the SSEP website

Testimonials for SSEP on STS-134

Watch a video of Dr. Jeff Goldstein talking about SSEP.

How Do You Pronounce ‘Uranus’?


Uranus is the planet with the funny name and the odd orientation. So, when you say the word ‘Uranus’ do you stress the first syllable or the second? Or, perhaps you do as Dr. Pamela Gay suggests, in order to avoid “being made fun of by any small schoolchildren … when in doubt, don’t emphasize anything and just say ‘Uranus.’ And then run, quickly.”

This video is the latest offering from “Sixty Symbols,” a video series put together by the University of Nottingham which provides explanations for the “squiggly lines and Greek letters that astronomers and physicists use to describe physical properties of the Universe and how they apply to modern life,” said Dr. Amanda Bauer, who gave a presentation about Sixty Symbols at the dotAstronomy conference I attended in December (and who is the first person you see on the Uranus video.)

Sixty Symbols covers symbols like Lambda and the Hubble Constant (H) to the speed of light (c), imaginary numbers (j) and propulsion efficiency — explaining their meanings in everyday language, and taking advantage of the passion and the unique senses of humor the scientists at The University of Nottingham all seem to possess!

Bauer said, however, the real genius behind these videos is filmmaker Brady Haran.

In the fall of 2009, the Sixty Symbols team completed their first sixty symbols, and they proved so popular they are now working on another sixty. The project follows The University of Nottingham’s ‘Periodic Table of Videos’ project , which features an entertaining short film about the properties of every single element in the Periodic Table, from aluminium to xenon.

Check out the Sixty Symbols website, and the Sixty Symbols You Tube site to learn more

You can also watch Bauer’s dotAstronomy presentation about Sixty Symbols here.

Accessible Astronomy: Touching the Night Sky

Caption: A page from “Touch the Universe.” Image courtesy of Noreen Grice.

The stunning images provided by space- and ground-based telescopes are visual wonders to behold. But those who are visually impaired can also enjoy astronomical images thanks to the work of Noreen Grice. For 25 years Grice has been working to make sure astronomy is accessible for everyone, including those who are blind or have low vision, as well as those who have impaired hearing. She has created of a series of books and other products that are designed to bring the universe to everyone.

Grice’s five astronomy books are accessible with text in both print and Braille along with pictures that are touchable. Using tactile overlays of line drawings of stars, planets, comets and other objects, real pictures come to life for the visually impaired. But they can also be shared by sighted people as well.

Listen to an interview with Noreen Grice by Carolyn Collins Petersen on the January 14th edition of 365 Days of Astronomy. Also visit Petersen’s website, The SpaceWriter, for additional info.

Her motivation came from a group of blind students who attended a planetarium show she presented in 1984 at the Boston Museum of Science, and she says those students opened her eyes to the need for accessibility in science education. “After the show was over, I asked them about their experience, and they told me the show ‘stunk,'” Grice said, “and it got me thinking — why can’t astronomy be accessible for everyone?”

She began by etching constellations, planets and star clusters, and galaxies on plastic by hand to use at the planetarium. But then she got the idea to try and create a book.

Touch the Invisible Sky by Noreen Grice, Simon Steel and Doris Daou

“For my first book, Touch the Stars, I wanted the pictures to be raised up and touchable, with the text imprinted in Braille,” Grice told Universe Today. “But when my second book came out, Touch the Universe, which was made using Hubble images, I felt like there was no way these pictures should just be line drawings because they are so colorful and beautiful. So from that point on that I’ve made the pictures in color and touchable, and the text is in both print and Braille.”

Grice said books that are just in Braille or are “touch only” books continue to make barriers for people. “One of the problems is that there are few resources for blind people, and those that are available are completely separate from books for the sighted,” she said. “I wanted to break down the barriers and bring people together so that everyone could use the same materials.”

That means that blind and sighted family members can enjoy Grice’s book together, and for students in a classroom, it means all students can use the same book, instead of having a “special” or different book for blind students.

“I want to break down barriers, and it is great that everyone in a classroom can use the same book,” she said. “Plus, it turns out our books are helpful for sighted people, as it makes it understandable for everyone, and provides a way to meet the needs of a variety of learning styles.”

Grice has worked in conjunction NASA and other astronomers and educators to create her books. Recently, she finished working on a book called Touch the Earth, which includes tactile images, and also has DVD for audio and sign language.

Noreen Grice at the AAS meeting, showing the Tactile Carina Nebula.

At the American Astronomical Society Meeting last week, Grice shared with astronomers the Tactile Carina Nebula, which was created from a large Hubble mosaic of images. By working with scientists Grice was able to include touchable variations for the different regions and objects in the image.

See this website for more info on the Tactile Carina Nebula.

Grice said she has had blind students contact her, or come up to her at National Federation of the Blind conventions who say because they read her books they have developed an interest in space and astronomy. “I know two students who are determined to be the first blind astronauts and another who wants to be an astronomer,” she said. “There is a whole universe out there, and I know that anyone can become a scientist and contribute to the scientific endeavor.”

Grice still works at the Boston Museum of Science and she shared that just recently a hearing impaired family came to the planetarium show. “I realized they were hearing impaired and told them we had captioning available,” Grice said. “It took me less than a minute to give them everything they needed, and they were so appreciative. The situation was a complete opposite of what it was in 1984, and it just confirmed that all my hard work in making the planetarium seamlessly accessible for everyone was worth it.”

For more information, check out You Can Do Astronomy, the website for Grice’s company

Exploring to the Beat of Pulsars

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An innovative project that provides high school students in Australia the opportunity to work with the famous Parkes radio telescope will soon make the data available to schools around the world. The [email protected] project allows for hands-on remote observing of pulsars producing real-time data, which then becomes part of a growing database used by professional astronomers. “Students can help monitor pulsars and identify unusual ones or detect sudden glitches in their rotation,” said Rob Hollow from the Australia Telescope National Facility, and coordinator for the [email protected] project. “They can also help determine the distance to existing pulsars.”

Initially, the project was only available to schools in Australia, but [email protected] hopes to expand globally, allowing students to collaborate on monitoring pulsar data. The first international session will be held on Dec. 7, 2009 at Cardiff University in the UK.

“We had the challenge to develop and implement simulation radio astronomy activities for high school students, providing the opportunity for them to actually use a radio telescope facility and engage with professional scientists,” said Hollow, speaking at the .Astronomy (dot Astronomy) conference this week in Leiden, The Netherlands. “We also wanted to have students doing science that is appropriate for them and useful for professional astronomers.”

Students in Sydney controlling the Parkes radio telescope. Credit:  R. Hollow, CSIRO
Students in Sydney controlling the Parkes radio telescope. Credit: R. Hollow, CSIRO

Hollow said that even though radio astronomy data consists of squiggly lines, students are still engaged by the results, even without the pretty pictures produced by other astronomical instruments. “It works surprisingly well, and the visuals haven’t been as big an issue and we thought,” Hollow said. “But in looking at pulsars, the students do get the pulse profiles and they get immediate feedback.”

Plus, when the dish actually moves in response to the students’ inputs, they really become engaged. “There’s a real ‘wow’ factor in being able to control the telescope,” Hollow said. “The students pick it up quickly, and they really like that they are contributing to science.”

Recently, the first science paper was published using results obtained by students.

The program is done remotely, and students view webcams of the telescope and control room. They control the telescope directly via the internet, monitor the data in real time, and use Skype to communicate with astronomers at Parkes.

So far, Hollow said, they have done 25 sessions, with 28 schools, working with about 450 students. “This project is not just for gift and talented students,” he said, “and any school can apply.”

The Parkes Radio Telescope. Credit: R. Hollow, CSIRO
The Parkes Radio Antenna. Credit: R. Hollow, CSIRO

Parkes is a 64 m diameter radio antenna that was built in 1961. Hollow said the dish has received regular updates and is still on the cutting edge of science. Most famously, Parkes was to receive video from the Apollo mission to the Moon.

Hollow said he sees [email protected] as just the beginning of working with students. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) will be coming online in just a couple of years, with thirty-six 12-meter dishes. “This will provide for very fast surveys that will increase the area of coverage and increase the capability for sensitivity,” Hollow said. “From ASKAP, we’ll be getting massive data sets, which will provide more opportunity for student and public involvement.

For more information, including an audio of what a pulsar “sounds” like, as well as info for schools and teachers, requirements, and how to apply visit the [email protected] website