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Working Side-by-Side with Scientists

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Project ASTRO encourages students to look in one direction: up toward the sky. The outreach program, created by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and funded by theNational Science Foundation, was adopted by the UW Department of Astronomy last fall. It pairs astronomers with fourth through ninth grade teachers; together they lead hands-on science activities in the classroom. The teams--25 in the program's first year, 40 in the upcoming year--are armed with a resource guide overflowing with creative projects in all areas of astronomy.

"We wanted to get involved in an outreach project, and here was a chance to do it with a program that was already in place," says Woodruff Sullivan, professor of astronomy and Project ASTRO director. "What was particularly appealing was the program's flexibility. Lots of ideas were provided, but no specific approach was required."

Sullivan contacted colleagues in his department as well as amateur astronomers in the region to gauge their interest in participating in Project ASTRO. The response was phenomenal. "Nearly half of our faculty and several of our graduate students volunteered, as well as ten amateur astronomers," says Sullivan. "Most are renewing for next year."

For many of the participants, a favorite classroom activity was making a comet. The recipe--outlined in the resources guide--includes dry ice, mud, and a touch of ammonia and organic material. "A comet is basically a dirty snow-ball," explains Sullivan. "That project is a real hit in the classroom."

The key is to get students participating. They learn much better by doing than by sitting and listening.

Another favorite was creating a scale model of the solar system. Sullivan, who volunteered at Olympic View Elementary School in Seattle, recalls, "Our model sun was 15 inches in diameter, so to be at scale, Pluto had to be a mile away. After working out the math, the kids loved pacing off the planets."

What's great about these projects, says Project ASTRO Coordinator Karen Peterson, is that most are very inexpensive. "In a lot of cases, all they require are walnuts or styrofoam balls and pins. The key is to get students participating. They learn much better by doing than by sitting and listening."

Thelma Ritchie agrees. An astronomy enthusiast and a fourth and fifth grade teacher at Island Park Elementary School on Mercer Island, Ritchie was thrilled to be involved with Project ASTRO. "Astronomy and space science are probably the most interesting topics we have for students," she says. "It's a great way to get them interested in science."

Ritchie was paired with Ed Mannery, a retired engineer in the Department of Astronomy who spent more than 15 years helping to build powerful telescopes for the University. Together they planned an ambitious project for the class that used Mannery's specialized expertise: they helped the students build a working telescope. "The students worked all year long, grinding and polishing the lens and sanding the tube," says Ritchie. "They also made their own, smaller refracting telescopes. It's been a very exciting project."

Although the astronomers were required to visit their assigned class only five times during the year, Mannery visited his more than 20 times. "I was really excited about this project," he explains. "The students were a completely unexpected surprise to me. They were fun, they were excited, and a couple of them were real hams."

Although the telescope project was a great success, Ritchie believes that her students benefited most from simply rubbing elbows with someone working in science. "Ed was a natural at working with students," she says. "And working side-by-side with a scientist is an experience kids don't get in school. I think they really valued that."

Peterson agrees that contact with scientists is one of the strengths of the program. She was particularly pleased to match a female, African American graduate student with a fourth grade class at Bailey-Gatzert Elementary School, which has a large minority population. "All kids have a vision of what an astronomer is," says Peterson. "For these kids to see an African American woman astronomer is an incredibly powerful message for them."

Of course, looking at the moon through a telescope you've built is also a powerful experience. That's just what Mannery, Ritchie, and her class did at the end of the school year. "After all the work the kids had put in, the gratification was incredible," says Mannery. "You look at the moon--even through the simplest telescope--and it looks absolutely fabulous."