Why We're Teachers: a Florida science teacher's experience in a Nasa research project

An artist's concept of the Spitzer Space Telescope against the Milky Way in infrared. Most of the 42 million sources of infrared light that Spitzer registered were incidental - astronomers were looking at one thing but the Spitzer's camera picked up everything around it. Linda and her fellow teachers searched this archive to find objects that had never been cataloged before - a valuable resource for astronomers in their research. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/R.Hurt (SSC)

Nitarp is a Nasa-funded program that gives teachers hands-on experience with astronomical research. I met Florida science teacher Linda Childs when we attended the launch of Nasa's Osiris-Rex mission. She agreed to share her experience discovering never-before-seen objects in the Milky Way using data from Nasa’s space telescopes. Linda came out of the program with a clear message for other teachers:

Apply. Apply to this program. It was just the most unique experience. It’s not just about the science, it’s about the whole learning process. It wasn’t geared towards being a better teacher, but in the end it did make me a better teacher.

Nitarp, an acronym for the Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program, matches small teams of secondary school science teachers with a professional astronomer. They conduct an original research project together over the course of thirteen months. At the project’s end they present their results at one of professional astronomy’s largest meetings.

I feel as a teacher when you stop wanting to learn about teaching or about your subject area then you need to quit. Because you never know everything. So I just thought this would be a really neat opportunity to find out how to do real science and real research versus just teaching. One of my best friends teaches astronomy in my county and had done the program the year before and told me to apply. I really had no idea what to expect.

Most of Nitarp’s educators teach high school science courses that incorporate astronomy. But they do not have a background in astronomy research. The whole point of the Nitarp experience is to let teachers see the scientific process in action. Linda’s background met Nitarp’s criteria perfectly.

I’ve been teaching for eighteen years now. Like every college student I didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up. I did a few odd jobs and then decided to be a science teacher. My first job was Earth/Space Science for 7th grade special ed. I didn’t like the physical sciences, the geosciences, and had no clue about special ed kids. But I actually fell in love with my special ed babies and fell in love with Earth/Space. That morphed into teaching astronomy in the high school. 
Right now I teach Earth/Space Science and physical science at Florida Virtual School. In Florida now it is a requirement to have a virtual course to graduate from high school. I have home school kids, I have kids who are athletes or in the fine arts who can’t attend a normal school, I have kids taking courses for credit recovery or just to fulfill their virtual credit.

Each Nitarp class kicks off at one of the world’s largest professional astronomy conferences. Several thousand professional astronomers, government officials, and students from around the world meet for five days in January at the American Astronomical Society’s Winter Meeting. The National Science Foundation, Nasa, and other funders of astronomy research deliver updates on the state of astronomy budgets. Nobel Laureates and freshly-minted PhD’s present the results of their latest research. And Nitarp’s teachers are right in the middle of it. They attend the presentations and panel discussions right alongside professional astronomers.

It was very overwhelming because there were all these scientists and I’m a science teacher. So there was a different level of knowledge - very intimidating. We had four people on our team plus our mentor who had been a previous participant plus our astronomer [Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Varoujan Gorjian]. It was nice to be able to spend some time to get to know them. We spent an entire day going over the whole process of the Nitarp program. We did get a pretty good intro into what our project was going to be about. We set up times for our weekly telecom that we did for a year while doing the project.

The team Linda worked on included teachers from Massachusetts, Colorado, and California. They work together for a year, but most of their communication was through email and conference calls. This reproduces what has become standard practice in professional astronomy: global collaboration. Research projects usually involve scientists from universities and government agencies across the country - or around the world. Nitarp gives its teachers a little extra help halfway through by bringing them out to Caltech, home of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

So in the summer we got to go to JPL. It was an intense week of really doing our research and learning about the project. Teachers who were participating in the project had brought their students. I didn’t have any students because I had switched over to the virtual school. But we had high schoolers with us - some who had a lot of background information on astronomy and some who didn’t. 
We went over our projects, how the project was going to work. The two astronomers who do Nitarp - Varoujan and [Caltech astronomer and Nitarp Director] Louisa Rebull - are not only amazing astronomers but they are really good teachers. You can be super smart but be a horrible educator. They were able to bring this information down to everyone’s level and make it understandable which to me is so important. 

The Ipac in Nitarp’s name is another acronym (Nasa loves acronyms). The Infrared Processing and Analysis Center is home to data from Nasa’s infrared space telescopes like the Spitzer Space Telescope. All of the bits of data produced by space telescopes, planetary missions, and mountaintop observatories flow into servers like the ones Ipac hosts. Thanks to these archives entire research projects can produce amazing science without collecting fresh data at all. Nitarp’s research projects are not any different from research conducted by professional astronomers every day.

The coolest part was most people think that [as] an astronomer you’re looking at objects through a telescope or you’re looking at photos. You’re really not. You’re looking at a lot of numbers and culling through that data. The science was looking at really hot objects that hadn’t been identified and trying to figure out what they were. We looked at infrared excess sources in Spitzer enhanced imaging products catalog. We crosschecked our sources with other databases to find out if they had been identified or not. I think we got down to 67 objects that had not been identified before.

"The Spider and the Fly" Nebulae lies at the edge of the Milky Way. Another class of Nitarp teachers used the data behind this pretty picture to search for Young Stellar Objects - the earliest stages of star formation before fusion begins. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

Even though Nitarp’s focus is the research experience, each team also reports on one of their project’s educational outcomes. Linda was the lead author for the team’s education poster which you can find on the SEIP IR Excess Survey project page.

The education part was basically how you can [use] crowdsourcing as a means of evaluating astronomical data - not just having the teachers and the astronomer look at it. It was real neat to see how many people got involved in this process and wanted to do citizen science.

Poster presentations like these are another standard element of academic research. Since any conference has a limited time for formal presentations, a room is set up for other researchers to present their work in the form of a poster. 

Nitarp’s teachers complete their research experience when they attend the next AAS Winter Meeting. They present their results in the poster hall alongside professional astronomers. Linda described what it was like to attend the 2015 Winter Meeting.

The first meeting I was scared to death because I didn’t know anything. The final meeting where we presented our product I was scared to death because astronomers - really educated scientists - are coming around and asking me questions about [the research]. 
It was exciting to have scientists talk to us about why this was an important project and how it related to some other findings. There was definitely a level of nervousness for me, but I knew so much more about the science. I had to keep reminding myself I may not be the best in the scientific field but in that area education is my thing. I was able to relay information in a manner that some people couldn’t have. 
[We also got] to talk to scientists about education and get their input into why astronomy, and all the sciences, are important to elementary and secondary education kids. All the scientists had things to say about teachers and how influential that teacher is or was to them. They can also name their most hated teacher which reminds me how powerful teachers are. We can really make or break a kid’s interest in a subject.

Nitarp’s objectives reach beyond the individual teacher’s experience. It wants the teachers to take that experience back to their community. Traditional textbooks and science projects do little to convey the uncertainty, frustration, and excitement of actual research. Nitarp’s teachers share their experience by conducting workshops with or delivering presentations to their fellow science teachers back home.

I’ve shared this program with lots of teachers. Professional development is usually [a few days] and then you leave. But this was a year-long project where we actually did a lot of work. There was nothing in Nitarp about the classroom. Everything was about putting yourself in a researcher’s position and it was all scientific research. We had to take our teachers’ hats off and start learning again. It was rigorous and it was hard and there were weeks when I just didn’t want to do it. But it made me realize that I love teaching. The classroom is my arena that’s where I should be.

Between 2005 and 2016 Nitarp has posted some impressive stats. Nearly 100 educators from 34 states have taken part. Their research produced 49 science posters and 54 education posters and has been published in both scientific and education journals. More importantly, Nitarp’s impact extends far beyond the final AAS meeting as teachers incorporate their experience into their classrooms.

My take away from this is not so much the science that we did. It was the experience of being a student again: “Oh-my-gosh what am I getting myself into. I’m afraid to ask a question. I don’t wanna look stupid.” It really reinforced how nerve wracking it is as a student to ask questions. 
I still tell my kids about it - my students I call them my kids - I remind them I just spent a year being you and it’s horrible! It is really scary. If you aren’t sure, you don’t want to look stupid. But you don’t even look stupid. It’s OK to ask questions. No one’s going to think you’re stupid. 
If you aren’t sure of something you have to ask. Teachers want you to ask questions. We like to talk about our subject area and we like to help. That’s why we’re teachers.