Teachers Research Like The Pros

In an attempt to get more students to study the sciences and mathematics, schools around the world are turning to experiential learning. Hands-on projects let students see how their studies apply to the real-world, as opposed to the abstract quizzes and math puzzles of traditional education.

That poses a challenge for science teachers who don’t have a background in scientific research: how do you effectively the process and practice of scientific research without any direct experience? Nasa and the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) created the Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program (Nitarp) to give teachers direct experience conducting an astrophysics research project that they can take back to the classroom.

Teachers selected for the program work with professional astronomers to conduct research using the vast resources ground-based observatories, space telescopes, and robotic missions pour into Nasa’s data archives every day. Using "old" data, however, isn’t a dumbed-down approach for “civilians”. Professional scientists depend on data archives at Nasa and the world’s observatories for their work. A report from the Space Science Telescope Institute, the folks who manage the Hubble Space Telescope, found that more than half of the research papers citing Hubble as a source relied on archived data. Almost 40% used archival data exclusively rather than "fresh" Hubble observations to produce real scientific results.

The application process happens in the early fall so the selected teachers can attend the American Astronomical Society’s national meeting in January. There they meet the staff from CalTech’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center who manage the Nitarp program. They also meet the current class of Nitarp teachers and the broader astrophysics community. Nitarp pairs each teacher with a professional astronomer. The astronomer works with the teacher through the spring to define the research project and begin analyzing the data. The teachers travel to CalTech in the summer to meet face-to-face with their mentors, learn how to use the analytical software, and work on their research projects. Over the rest of the summer and into the new school year the teachers conduct their research. Teachers get their students involved throughout this process. 

The following January the teachers return to the AAS national meeting, this time to present the results of their research in poster sessions. These sessions aren’t part of a separate outreach session at the end of the meeting. The teachers are mixed in with other astrophysics researchers as equals. For example, a team of teachers and their students working with data from the Planck Space Telescope presented their work at the 2013 AAS meeting (Nitarp PDF, ADS Abstract) classifying 57 previously unknown infrared sources. 

In exchange for the expenses-paid support, the educators must involve their students in the research and serve as mentors for other teachers. The teachers spend the next two years serving as Nitarp Ambassadors, conducting professional development workshops, presenting at teacher conferences, and mentoring new Nitarp teachers.

Artist's impression of the Spitzer Space Telescope at work. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)

Artist's impression of the Spitzer Space Telescope at work. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)

Nitarp hosted 87 educators from 34 states since its inception as an outreach program of the Spitzer Space Telescope mission. The teachers’ work ranges from studies of stellar formation to research into the nature of active galactic nuclei - the black holes at the center of galaxies. Most importantly, the teachers involve their students throughout the process, learning about astronomy, searching for data, writing code, and analyzing data. 

It sounds like an intensive program for elite teachers. Nitarp’s main goal, however, is to increase the number of science teachers with research experience. First priority doesn’t go to teachers who have already conducted research, but to teachers without research experience who already use astronomy in the classroom. Even then Nitarp only has the budget to accept one out of every 4 or 5 applicants. Each research team of can cost as much as $50,000 - most of it travel expenses for the mentor, the teacher, and up to 2 students.

Nitarp is an expensive program, but its impact reaches far beyond the individual teachers. Local media picks up on the “unusual” news that students presented research alongside PhD-wielding astrophysicists. The Lahaina News, for example, featured the student-astronomers from Maui Preparatory Academy who presented their Planck research results at the AAS 2013 meeting. Teachers and students in ConnecticutIllinois, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have also been featured by their local media outlets.

The Witch Head Nebula where teachers and their students discovered half-a-dozen new-borne stars.

The Witch Head Nebula where teachers and their students discovered half-a-dozen new-borne stars.

Teachers and their students also get recognized in professional astrophysics circles. Nitarp teams co-authored five scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals. For example, teachers and students in California, Connecticut, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas used archival data as well as fresh observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope to study the Witch Head Nebula. They were the first people in the world to work with those observations and helped discover six new-borne stars, or Young Stellar Objects, one of which shows signs of a protoplanetary disk, the ring of dust and gas where planets may form. Their paper appeared in the peer-reviewed Astrophysical Journal (free access doi:10.1088/0004-637X/720/1/46, arXiv preprint, Nitarp poster PDF). 

Nitarp director Dr. Luissa Rebull reviewed the program’s impact in a paper presented to the 2013 conference of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific as well as in reports to Nasa Science Mission Directorate’s Education and Public Outreach program. Each teacher involves about 120 students in the research project, about 20 of whom are deeply involved. All told the Nitarp alumni reach over 10,000 students per year. These teachers become more confident teaching how science is done because they speak from experience. Rather than relaying the textbook description of a lone scientist following a linear process of hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion, teachers explain the dynamic, collaborative, back-and-forth, start-and-stop nature of real research. 

For many teachers, research doesn’t stop when their Nitarp session ends. They bring archival astrophysics data into classroom projects and encourage their students to conduct research projects of their own, transferring their newfound excitement to a new generation of young scientists and teachers.