Teacher research advances astronomy

IC 417 is a cluster of newly-forming stars whose intense light energizes the surrounding gas clouds like a neon sign. American science teachers worked with professional astronomers to discover 100 stars at the earliest stage of development. Credit: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage) and H. Schweiker (WIYN and NOAO/Aura/NSF)

Middle and high school teachers presented scientific research right beside the hundreds of professional astronomers attending the American Astronomical Society's winter meeting at the beginning of the year.

The teachers had joined Nitarp, the Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program. Run by Caltech scientists, the program fosters teacher development by giving educators hands-on experience with actual scientific research. Science teachers participating in the program are paired with professional astronomers to conduct a year-long research project. The teams mine archives from Nasa’s space telescopes and ground-based observatories. At the end of the program the teachers produce two poster presentations for the AAS meeting. One explains the results of their research. This year teams presented three science posters:

  • Pruett’s research team studied the relationship between the color of active galaxies and the brightness of the light the galaxies emit. This could help understand the dynamics of the supermassive black holes at the galaxies’ centers. 
  • Another science team searched a star cluster for newly-forming stars and discovered 100 candidates in the process.
  • A third project studied open star clusters to find the “turnoff point” where star formation stops.

The teachers must also present a study of the educational impact of participatory science. Three posters presented at this year's meeting include:

  • A team of ninth grade students and local amateur astronomers mapped the light pollution in their Oregon valley.
  • Another presentation connected the Nitarp experience to Next Generation Science Standards.
  • The third poster reported a survey that measured the effect Nitarp participation had on students attitudes towards science. (Spoiler: big-time)

The teachers take their experience back to their local school district where they conduct professional development workshops with local science teachers.

Program director Louisa Rebull presented an update on Nitarp's reach and impact. The program attracts teachers from across the United States, but four times as many teachers apply than the program can accept. So far the program's teacher-scientists have presented more than 50 science posters at AAS meeting - 8 of which went on to publication in peer-reviewed science journals.