My Visit to AAS with NITARP
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By Danielle Miller | January 16th, 2013

Danielle Miller is one of the teachers accepted to the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP). As part of the program, she and her colleagues attended the American Astronomical Society meeting - a huge meeting of around 3000 astronomers that took place in Long Beach last week. Here is her blog of her experience. For more information about NITARP, including an application form for teachers who wish to join the next cohort, please visit

January 6th - NITARP and AAS, day 1

Welcome to my NITARP adventure! I was notified of my acceptance to the NIITARP program very early on the morning of Saturday, September 29, 2012. I was thrilled because I had worked very long and hard on my application and I found out that five times as many people applied for the program as there were spots available. I forwarded the email to just about everyone, including my principal who has been supportive from the very first second I walked up to him with the application and the question of “do you mind if I go to California for a week?” He smiled, as he tends to do whenever I throw crazy ideas at him (which is quite frequently) and said yes. I’m glad I didn’t let him down.

I very excitedly registered for the AAS meeting, booked a hotel and worked with the JPL staff to book my flights. I shared the news with my students, my family, my friends, and anyone else who would listen! Finally, yesterday, January 5th, I headed for the Orlando international airport to start my NITARP adventure. It was not exactly the best start as my flight was delayed and I got in at 11pm instead of 6. Also, my luggage ended up in Vegas, but I’m excited to be here in Long Beach and that’s what matters! I started the day a little nervous, but after talking to two people from different teams I’ve realized that most people feel the same way as I do.

Our schedule for the day was very full and had presentations from several people, but what I think was the most beneficial was to sit down with our team to get a quick overview of our work. In a (very small) nutshell, we’re working with red giant stars. We’ll be using data – light curves in particular – from the Kepler telescope. Red giants can be fusing hydrogen shells or helium cores, and you can tell this from something called asteroseismography… which just sounds really cool. It’s really just a big fancy word for starquakes. We’re obviously going to be going into much more detail than that, but that’s the background. The database we’re using seems a bit complicated, but I think once I get to play around with it, I’ll manage to click my way around. After our intro session with the scientists, we had lunch as a team. Though I still think we’ll work well together, we’re all very different and we’re all from VERY different schools. One of the teachers on the team is also into robotics though, so I’m pretty excited about that.

Part of the plan for the day was to learn how to read a scientific poster, and what it really boils down to is that the poster is an advertisement for your work. We also saw posters from last year’s teams... they’re all so different and detailed. I hope my team can do something as awesome as some of the teams from 2012.

A few of us NITARPers went to an educator reception and met a few astronomers, one of whom I had already met on twitter! I love meeting people in real life. I bonded with some of the other teachers from the other teams, and I can honestly say that the NITARP teachers are some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. I also chatted with the engineer who is in charge of the office of public outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore MD, where I was this past summer for a NASA Explorer Schools workshop.

The opening ceremony was in the Aquarium and it was fun. It was a bit of a walk, but I talked to the woman who is in charge of outreach and education for Hubble at STSci. It’s a really a good icebreaker that I hung out there this summer and know a bit about the programs. The opening ceremony had lots of people, lots of delicious food, petting rays and hanging with seals… so what more could you ask for? Tonight helped me realize that I shouldn’t be nervous when talking to new people, because I tried it quite a few times and everyone was very nice/interesting/awesome/smart. I think I’ll still be nervous to talk to people, but at least I know I shouldn’t be.

After an awesome first day, it got better when I got back to the hotel, as my luggage finally arrived. Goodnight from Long Beach!

January 7 - NITARP and AAS, day 2

Today was an extremely full day from the morning session at 8:30 until now… 10:30. I’m very tired.

The morning talk was on the Spitzer telescope, and here are the few things I thought were the most interesting. 1. the planned science seemed kind of boring to me. 2. the unplanned science was really, really cool. 3. Spitzer’s been around a very long time… the original scientists were chosen the year I was born!

I went to the exhibit hall for a few minutes to learn about an aperture tool at the IPAC booth, then headed up to a session I was really interested in…” Research Based Initiatives for Broadening the Participation of Women and Minorities in Astronomy.” The programs were great, and I can’t wait to look into this one: However, I did find it a bit interesting that out of the five presenters, all five of them were men. The programs were all new, and there were several for undergrad, grad and PhD students. I enjoyed the one presenter in particular because not only did he talk about how the STEM “leaky pipe” graphic isn’t quite accurate (which I totally agree with) he also had us do a think-pair-share and I think the best presenters are the ones who get the audience involved.

I went to lunch with 2 other NITARPers not on my team, and again, I really think that the 18 of us are really cool. We had a great view of Long Beach, some delicious food, and some great conversations about teaching and science.

I wandered around the exhibit floor for awhile, got to see a ridiculously cool model of the JWST mirrors that you could stand near and if you looked from the correct place at the correct angle, it reflected to show you the actual size. Here's a photo, obviously I was very excited :)

I talked to several astronomers who work with radio telescopes in the Netherlands, gamma ray telescopes, and the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico. I asked all of them if they had teacher programs… hey, why not? Arecibo does, but only for local teachers, and the man at the booth discussed how there would be a language barrier anyway because all of their professional development is presented in Spanish. I also found out some cool information about the Hubble Legacy Archive and their education resources, you can check them out here:

I checked out a few posters from the scientists that work with NITARP, and one of them had the best photo of Pluto ever taken from the ground. The other was cool because even though when I walked up I had minimal knowledge of the basics of the research; by the time I left I had a ton of questions… which I think is a good sign of good science. I’m really excited to see more posters tomorrow, not only to learn things about the research, but also to practice talking to people and asking good questions.

After, I went to a session with my mentor teacher, Sally Seebode who developed a google doc spreadsheet that can be used with the students to help introduce stellar classifications/distances/brightness/all kinds of other things. I’m really hoping to use it in class.

I’m a little upset I missed the Town Hall session I planned to attend, but I just needed a break so I came back to the hotel for a little while. I headed out about an hour later to dinner with the teacher members of my team, during which we had a conversation about social media and education. I really wish everyone could see how powerful of a tool Twitter really is when it comes to learning and communicating.

To end the day, we had one last official NITARP session. It was a finishing up of 2012 with advice for 2013. Though I did think it was helpful to meet new people and have time to talk to them, I don’t think it was completely beneficial to everyone because all of the teams are so different and everyone is in such a different place in their NITARP journey. It may have been better to structure it a different way, but in the end present to us some best practices that you can take or leave, depending on your situation. What I found most beneficial was talking to the students. They were smart, well spoken, honest, knowledgeable, and I can’t wait to pick the students who will be working with me to get started. Goodnight!

January 8- NITARP and AAS, day 3

Hello again from AAS in Long Beach! If you've just stumbled across my blog, welcome! I'm a teacher, so there's not a whole lot of science here, but if you're interested in a teacher point of view of the AAS, then I think you're in the right place.

Check out our news release for NITARP… I’m in there!

Started the morning with a plenary talk about exoplanets and Kepler (the telescope, not the man). One of the best things about the talk was it was presented by a girl! Yay for ladies in science! Natalie Batalha from NASA Ames gave the talk and not only was she great, the stuff we saw was great. Who doesn't love planets outside the solar system!? Yesterday the Kepler team announced that there were 461 new planet candidates and a bunch of the ones they’re finding are getting smaller and more Earth-ish in size. That’s just cool. She showed some of graphs at the beginning that illustrated the number of exoplanets found over time, and when she added the Kepler data (from just the past few years) everyone in the room literally applauded. (yes, I believe my life is better because I was in a room full of people who clapped for a graph of planets.)

I hung out in the Grand Ballroom for a few more minutes to see 2 people receive awards. The first was C. Megan Urry (yes, another woman astronomer!) who won the prize because of her work to involve women in astronomy. The second was Donald McCarthy, who won the AAS education prize for doing years of work at the University of Arizona’s astronomy camp and mentoring students, some who now have PhDs in astronomy.

From there I went to a session on Innovations in Teaching, Learning and Mentoring. I’m not sure that any of the speakers I heard had very innovative ideas… cool, but not quite innovative. The first was a woman involved with the world wide telescope program. I learned about the program this summer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and while it is very cool, her talk was mostly about integrating technology with what is already done in class, which in almost every case I've seen, increases learning for students. If you haven't seen the WWT program, you should check it out… it really is neat. The next speaker talked about his flipped classroom. They only met once a week face to face; students did work, posted it online, and responded to others… the usual. He said it worked really well, but I would venture to say that just about anything works well when your class is only 18 students who are all in an honors college program. Next is a program I think I may want to look into, a sort of citizen science thing where students can hunt for asteroids. Again, very cool, but citizen science isn't really something new. This is the website:, if you’d like to look into it too! The last talk I heard before sneaking out of the session (there were 3 more, but I had to get to the education event…) was on how what we’re doing in education isn't really working for the students. For the majority of students for the majority of the time, I agree. The presenter talked a bit about her nephew learning but not learning according to a test. I took short notes at just about every session I went to, and something she said hit me enough to write it down word for word. “Everything I think I know might be wrong. So what is possible?” So her program involves research on how students learn and understand astronomy. Their intention is to sort of reboot everything when it comes to astronomy education. Are you interested in participating? I think I am. It’s just getting started, and you can be part of it! go here: and click on the registration link.

At around 11:30, we headed to an event for teachers and students (even though I didn't have any students with me). The woman in charge put us all into groups with a mix of teachers and students, color coded us, and got us all in a room and seated within about 10 minutes. I would say there were close to 200 people there and I would be willing to bet money that she was, at some point, a teacher. The welcome speech was given by none other than Bobak Ferdowsi, Mars Science Lab engineer/Mohawk guy (but based on his face during his introduction, clearly he does not enjoy being called that or the attention). He shared a bunch of photos from Curiosity with us and a really cool video of the landing night, which I hadn't actually seen yet. He said each time he watches it, he still gets nervous. Honestly, watching it made me nervous too.

Flashback Photo: found this photo on my iPod of that night. I was glued to my TV at 1am eastern, just like - I assume - most of you reading this.

He showed some other cool photos, most of which I had seen already, then took some questions from the students, all of which were really good. Most kids really do think science is cool and I wish I knew the point when most of them stop thinking that. Once everyone started leaving, he very graciously took photos with everyone who wanted one, and signed an autograph or two.

We (the teachers and students) ended up in the exhibit hall to visit booths for 15 minute sessions, and I’m not going to lie, the scientists pulled out ALL the stops to get the kids doing exciting things, asking good questions, answering good questions, and doing hands on activities. So, if you’re one of the people who were in booths 2-9 today, kudos. As a teacher, I know that if they were my students, they would have learned a ton and loved learning it all at the same time. You can’t ask for anything better than that. Some of the booths were ones I had already visited, but a few of the people remembered me, which was cool.

Throughout the day, two announcements were made that I thought were really cool: an asteroid belt around Vega, and that a brown dwarf may have an atmosphere! You can find them both on the NASA facebook page, if you’d like to know more. .

The whirlwind of AAS continued when I met with my team (did I mention they’re awesome?) one last time before some of us start leaving tomorrow. We went through the process of getting light curves again and I feel much better about it now. We also have homework to check out light curves in other research tomorrow, complete the process for four stars and be on a conference call on January 21st to talk about our results. (I’m starting to feel like I’m doing real science for the first time in a long time. It’s so cool.)

The last thing I did for the day was wander around to check out the posters of some of the NITARP teams from last year. I only looked at two posters on Monday – one from one of the scientists I’m working with, he loves Pluto and got a really good photo of it; and one from the scientist who helps run the NITARP program, she did research on the disks around F type stars and just like all good science, now has more questions about what’s really going on. The posters today on Education were my favorite. You can check out all of them here:

There was a great top 10 list on the “how do astronomers know that?” poster. The students there did a great job of explaining to me what it was like to really collaborate as scientists and how helpful it was to work as a team to learn new things. The inquiry poster was cool, if for no other reason than because it helped me to remember that I’m really doing the right thing when I give my students time to play and figure things out for themselves. Another education one that was extremely interesting to me because it involved middle AND high school students. The students I spoke with were clearly younger but still knew just as much and were just as well spoken as any of the other students I talked to. They worked with a huge group of students and teachers to study galactic nuclei. I also checked out a poster that dove into students having a hard time understanding the relationships in telescopes between aperture and resolution, which is something I struggle to teach as well. Like any good education data, there was a pre and post test that showed increased understanding after targeted hands on interventions. A few of the other posters I saw had research done by Spitzer and Chandra, described an aperture tool that can be used for doing astronomy research, searched for Young Stellar Objects with WISE data, and analyzed SOFIA data on a planetary nebula.

It was clearly another long day, so I headed back to the hotel after checking out the posters. I got a bunch of cool NASA swag, and I’m rested and ready for tomorrow. My plans for tomorrow are: 1. find posters with light curves 2. go to a town hall some more new people and 4.enjoy my last day here!

January 9 – NITARP and AAS, day 4

My last day at AAS was not as hectic as the past three, for sure. I made sure to sit down with the Kepler Exoplanet Data that my team will be using to be sure I knew what I was doing while I could still ask questions of my mentor teacher and the scientists. The day started with a session on the solar system, and although it was in a huge room, there probably weren’t any more than 30-40 people there. I guess our Solar System doesn’t seem so cool anymore now that there are exoplanets just about everywhere you look. Part of the “homework” assignment for my team was to look for light curves, and there were some in the Solar System talks this morning, in a presentation about Kuiper Belt objects. I also heard from scientists who study comets, and then I ran to a different room to hear from a NASA scientist about their Education and Public outreach portfolio. I haven’t been able to look into everything yet, but I did want to mention NASA Wavelength ( ) a place to go for education resources. As an educator who loves NASA resources I frequently find it overwhelming to find exactly what I’m looking for. This site is very well organized, even though it doesn’t have nearly as many resources as some other places. I also found out that Eyes on EXOPLANETS is available! Check out My students and I love Eyes on the Solar System and now there’s a brand new program that is similar to it, except it allows you to see artist renditions of cataloged exoplanets. (And it’s in 3D too!)

I roamed around the exhibit hall for a bit to find some more posters with light curves, then attended my first Town Hall meeting about the James Webb Space Telescope. I expected a town hall to be a bit more intense than this one was, but I thought it was very positive. Though I wasn’t at the NASA town hall yesterday, but the way the presenters mentioned it made it seem to me the discussion in that meeting did get a bit heated. There were three presenters and the first was Eric Smith who spoke about the telescope and timeline for the mission. He showed us a chart with the number of milestones for each year. In 2011, there were 21 milestones, and all 21 were met. in 2012, there were 37 milestones, 34 were met and 3 were pushed to this year. In 2013 there are 41 planned milestones, 10 (!!) of which are already complete! He also spoke a little bit about all the cryo tests that will start soon. Randy Kimble who spoke more in depth about all the ridiculous tests JWST will be going through all the way up to launch in 2018. What I thought was cool was that NASA modified an old Apollo cryo test chamber at Johnson to fit JWST. Lastly, Dr. Mike Brown (the @plutokiller himself!) talked about how we know very little about the outer solar system and James Webb can help us figure out much more when it comes to unanswered questions. The Kuiper Belt is a funky place for sure.

For my last session, I attended Advocating for Astronomy, a session about how to promote science in our government the right way. The four person panel was led by one of the media people from AAS and had 3 others with experience advocating and promoting science in Washington DC. One of the things they all agreed on was that scientists are not exactly the best at communicating their own work and their needs to the people who make the decisions. We were shown a chart of constituent calls, letters and visits (recorded by one of the panelists) and the numbers were just sad. When it came to calls about space, there were about 1 per year, science in general, only 1 per month. Meanwhile, issues like Social Security and Medicare got about 5 per day. If you’re interested in getting really involved, check out and go visit some congress people! Also, check out for fellowship opportunities. If you aren’t looking for something quite that intense, just know how to be a better, (nicely) outspoken constituent. Understand that congressional staffers are young but educated (but probably not in science), handling a lot of issues at one time, working very hard, and want to help you if it’s possible. You should know before calling/emailing/writing/visiting what you’re asking for and what law/policy you’re talking about. All of the speakers made it a point to say there’s a lot of noise coming from a lot of different people, but if you have a clear message and purpose, you’re definitely going to be heard.

One thing that happened during this experience – which also happened at my NASA explorer schools summer research experience – is that I helped 2 (maybe more) teachers get twitter accounts! I really believe that my teaching has improved since I started tweeting, and I also believe that my love for NASA was rekindled because of it too. Once you really understand how twitter works and you follow the right people and chats, the conversations you have can absolutely change how you think and learn for the better. Though I’m not totally a twitter expert (I always go over 140 characters and frequently forget to cite my sources) I do think it’s a great tool for education. Sometimes for exit slips, I have the students “tweet” their answers, because I think if you can explain something well in just 140 characters, you really understand the concept. If you’re an educator and thinking about twitter, check out this livebinder, by one of the educators I follow on twitter!

Now I’m packing up, getting a few hours of sleep and headed back to Florida bright and early! I’ve got to get some grading done and get ready for midterms next week. Thanks for following along with my AAS adventure!

Read these blogs, starting with the first entry, on Danielle's Blogspot.