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Authentic science through high school astronomy

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  • Mike Winters & Arielle Devorah, P21 Blog

Satellite Photo Courtesy Of NASA/JPL - Caltech
What might high school students do when they get their hands on at $300M Mars spacecraft?

The question expanded. What does happen when you take a NASA spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars, load it with the most advanced sensory equipment possible, launch it into orbit around that rocky planet, and then put its data and imaging systems in the hands of high school students?

The answer. They learn how to ask questions and much more.

Authentic science through high school astronomy AZHP4-300x156WHAT’S A GOOD QUESTION?
A good question “is almost like a marriage,” says Arielle Devorah, one of my Astronomy students who helped lead the JMARS THEMIS Project at Catalina Foothills High School last year. She was willing to sit down and talk about the project for this post. She means that a good scientific question demands commitment: “You have to marry this question,” she continues. “If you don’t find a good one, you won’t have fun, and you won’t find anything interesting.”

Arielle was one of 80+ students in my classes, which embarked on the Mars Student Imaging Project. It evolved out of a partnership between Jet Propulsion Laboratories and Arizona State University (ASU) as an education initiative located at the Mars Space Flight Facility. My classes have participated for the last three years. The project requires them to formulate questions and hypotheses, collect and analyze data, extract conclusions, and communicate and defend their research and conclusions to actual scientists at ASU — the planetary geologists, astrophysicists, and astronomers who are involved in the JMARS project. They conduct the research and control the THEMIS (thermal emission imaging system) camera, onboard the spacecraft Odyssey.

As you read this, the 1600-pound craft still swings around Mars, looping the red planet in polar orbits (making a complete orbit every two hours), and photographing away. The THEMIS is a special camera that collects 5 wavelengths of visual light and 10 wavelengths of infrared light, and the Odyssey has made over 60,000 orbits in the last 15 years — that’s a lot of data.

With all of that information, what’s so hard about asking a scientific question? “First of all, you have so many,” reports Arielle,” and many of them are not research-worthy. Is there data I can collect about this? Can I prove this?” She and her classmates had to learn how to formulate questions that are novel, testable, and interesting. This is difficult work that we rarely ask high school students to do.

This is the most authentic science I’ve seen high school students do. This is not what is typically done in a science class. It is student-driven – they come up with their own raw project, and their research has to be original. They have to come up with an idea, a question, and procedures, test the procedures, and carry them out.

They are modeling exactly what a professional researcher has to do. They have to develop a proposal, give a presentation to someone who controls technology that they need (e.g., satellite or telescope), and then they have to be awarded time to use that technology. Students then have to present their results to several planetary scientists through an online collaboration system who come in and listen — to some of the guys who built the satellite and put it in orbit around Mars. That’s exactly what researchers do.

After defending their proposal to the working scientists at ASU, my students understand that they have to propose something of value in order to get a project off the ground. In the real world, no one says: “Here’s money, go do research.” You have to apply, win the money, and have the facilities. The companies that invent, build, and own these instruments don’t just hand them out.

What else did they learn about science? Collaboration. “We learned a lot about teamwork,” said Arielle. “The second that one of our people wasn’t doing what he or she was supposed to, there would be a problem.”

Kids are a little afraid of this project at first. They hear 20-to-30-page report, and they get scared. I admit, I do not downplay what is at stake, or the work involved. And they do need support along the way. As Arielle recalls it, “you didn’t just throw us into the water…well, okay, you did that a little at the beginning. That toughness is necessary.” That toughness – the anticipation of having to create significant work, and being held to a high, professional standard, is what brought everyone together.

“Everyone was so scared, and worried. The push toward the end really got everyone involved. It was a random collection of kids. We had to work together on this crazy project. It was a melting pot of diverse people. And we thought, ‘Oh, my god, we’ve got to present this to NASA scientists, we’ve got to get this right, and sound smart.”

And they did. They learned how to work with one another, and how to manage the work of several small teams who are all taking on important parts of the task, which is what they will encounter later if they work at Boeing or Raytheon. They delegate the work among each other so they can manage it.

The report that the students produce is impressive. They feel a lot of pride about that report. Very, very little of it comes from me. “I had never taken on something this large before,” said Arielle.

If you ask her, Arielle mentions the technology skills, the collaboration, and the ability to think scientifically. The organization, streamlining of thought, and focus on a single mission – those are all critical. But what I like best is her personal lesson: “The unstoppableness of your intellectual vitality. If you want it that bad, it will happen.”

“Trust their students more,” says Ms. Devorah. “If they know they will give their students the right tools, then the students will produce something that is a success, that is worthy of a scientist’s eyes.”
jmars software
Mike Winters and a student work with JMARS, the software used to analyze data from the Odyssey spacecraft’s THEMIS camera

URL links:
Mars Odyssey Mission THEMIS
MSIP: Welcome to the Mars Student Imaging Project
Using JMARS for MSIP

Mike Winters has taught Physics and Astronomy at Catalina Foothills School District, a P21 Exemplar, 6 years. He has been a teacher of Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, and Earth Science for 15 years. He Attended Mars Student Imaging Project training in Summer 2006 and continues to attend online training to stay current with the project.

Arielle Devorah is a senior at Catalina Foothills High School. She notes: “I’ve always admired the study of astronomy and aerospace.” She also loves the humanities, but said she will take as many astronomy courses as she can in the future so she can be involved as much as possible in both fields.

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