Astronomy course builds STEM foundation for Chicago students, teachers

For more than two weeks in July, the Chicago Public Schools/University of Chicago Internet Project staged a program aimed at helping students pursue studies in astronomy and related fields.

The idea behind this STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education program, called NASA All-Stars, was to introduce CPS science teachers and their students to data analysis. They used publicly available data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and NASA along with story-based lessons on the science, history, tools and impact of astronomy across the spectrum from CUIP’s Multiwavelength Astronomy website. The teachers would create educational materials, the students would learn how to use data and everybody learned to use the technology together.

NASA All-Stars was modeled after a two-year CPS program called Capstone, which united Chicago universities—DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern and UChicago—with the Adler Planetarium, to create a senior-year science elective course for CPS students.

Another inspiration and community-learning style came from the Sloan Survey’s success, which generated a project called the Galaxy Zoo, an international, interactive project that asked users to help classify the millions of galaxies. Looking at the data, a scientist might ask, for example, “What fraction of the sky are elliptical galaxies, and what are spirals?” The amateur astronomers all over the world looked at the Sloan Survey’s public data and were successfully able to answer the questions.  

Don York, the Horace B. Horton Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and co-founder of CUIP, said, “We looked up all of the astronomy teachers in the city we could find, and invited them to participate in the program and use the Multiwavelength Astronomy modules we had created with NASA funding. Ideally, we would bring the CPS teachers together, show them each of the modules so they could create teaching materials, and then have them bring the students and other science teachers to train them.”

Each day, teacher-mentors also led small group hands-on and research activities for the teachers and students. The participants used iPad Minis for reading lessons, research, presenting their work and blogging.

“Even though we teach at different places, we share the goal of science education, and thus have a lot to offer each other,” said Nik Barge, science teacher at Walter Payton College Prep, who was eager to give his school’s student participants access to authentic scientific research.

This year’s participants included nine teachers and 13 students from CPS, and two students from the Universal Islamic School. Four teacher-mentors, who participated in training on the Multiwavelength Astronomy materials in 2012, led small-group morning sessions with their peers. In the afternoon, students joined the teachers for science talks given by UChicago scientists. Three world-renowned astronomers from other institutions, including NASA, took part in Skype sessions after participating in interviews for the story-based lessons.

“Looking back at these three weeks, first learning the basic building blocks of astronomy and even taking a journey back to freshman physics, and then frantically scrambling to create a coherent presentation showing the results of my research, I realize how much about astronomy I’ve learned,” said Anton, a student participant. “With my new knowledge about the world of science, I hope that I will be able to somehow continue pursuing science in the future.”

On the final day, after teachers presented their lesson plans using the Multiwavelength Astronomy website materials and students presented their short research projects, all the participants took home their iPad Minis. The students also received memberships to the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, and the knowledge that once high school is over, there are no boundaries to their futures in STEM careers.