If you keep up with my blog, you know that one of my projects this year is NITARP, the NASA/IPAC teacher archive research program. What that means is that my adventure started in January at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach and has been going strong ever since.
Throughout the second semester of the school year, eight students and I worked hard to graph and record data from the 50 red giant stars assigned to us. I thought coordinating that many students that needed a high level of precision would be difficult, but I think trusting them to do the right thing and then them actually doing the right thing has helped me grow as a teacher. Even though everything wasn’t totally perfect and the data from each star didn’t have the same format, it all worked out ok. We have 6 pretty distinct steps in our research, and steps 1-5 were done by the team before the school year was over. The students found the star in the Kepler database, made a light curve, normalized a light curve, made a periodogram, then created a phased curve for the periodogram. (sounds really difficult, right? wrong. that's why NITARP is so awesome. my high schoolers did that!) I’ve put the last step (and the part with the most work…phase binning) on the 2 girls who will be going to California with me. They picked up on the process way quicker than I did, and I think we’ll be good to sit down and try to find the patterns sometime in July to get ready for our trip to Caltech in August. We mostly met after school and a few of the students on the team worked on stars after they were done with classwork.
Choosing students to travel with me was WAY harder than I expected, as all of the students were super dedicated. I had two seniors on the team, and even though they knew they couldn’t travel, they did a TON of work. One student even came in after the school year was over for seniors to work on stars! The other 6 students worked hard each day we met and I had to go back to their applications on my own and with other teachers several times before making my final decision. It wasn’t easy, but I chose the two students who I thought enjoyed the project the most, were most dedicated, and expressed an interest in pursuing a science or engineering career in the future.
Sending out rejection emails (which I regret a little, I should have probably told them in person) was one of the most heartbreaking things I had to do as a teacher, but I’m trying to take it as another learning moment in my teaching career courtesy of NITARP. On the other hand though, sending out acceptance letters was really exciting and the two students going with me seem as excited as I am to keep going with the research. We just finished the process of booking plane tickets, and all the field trip paperwork is submitted to my school and the county. I also sat down real quick to chat with their parents to make sure they understood what their student was going to be doing and where we would end up once we got on the plane in August.
We’re getting more excited each day to travel to California and meet the rest of them. Hopefully we’ve actually figured out something about red giant stars too J
In sort of related news, Kepler isn’t doing so hot, but our research is using data from quarters 4-11, so even though the telescope isn't quite working now, our research isn’t affected. You can keep up with the latest Kepler news at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/mmu.html
Also, if you're a teacher and want to do some real astronomy research with your students, you can apply for the 2014 NITARP class now! http://nitarp.ipac.caltech.edu/news_item/368. The application is open in the hopes that the NASA education/public outreach budget works out in favor of awesome stuff like this :)
I do lots of professional development things, and I have to say being part of NITARP is one of the best (and only) opportunities out there for teachers to do real science with real data and real scientists.