Smiling, Spitzer Staff Scientist Dr. Ranga-Ram Chary silently watched as 17-year old Katie Mills explained a complex plot of spikes and dips to Pasadena Star News reporter Kimm Groshong. Ironically, just two days before this interview, upon her arrival at the Spitzer Science Center (SSC), the North Carolina teen worried that she wasn't "smart enough to do Dr. Chary's job."
Mills was one of seven SSC guests, visiting the week of June 27. The group of three science teachers and four students are participants of the Spitzer Space Telescope Research Program for Teachers and Students, which granted 12 educators the use of three and a half hours of Spitzer observing time for educational observations.
The program pairs six student-teacher groups with mentors from Spitzer's staff of scientists. Sponsored by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), National Science Foundation (NSF) and SSC, the goal is to inspire middle and high school students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This group represents the first of six that will be visiting SSC throughout the summer to analyze data from Spitzer's educational observations.
"This program is very unique," said Doris Daou, Deputy Manager of Education and Public Outreach at the SSC. "I don't know of any other programs that allow middle and high school teachers observation time on a space telescope."
The visitors began their day on an early Monday morning with a tour of the SSC, which is located on the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) campus in Pasadena, Calif.
Treated as honored guests, they toured the highly secure Science Operations Area, which requires an access code and a personnel fingerprint scan prior to entrance.
"It's just like the movies," Mills exclaimed.
After the tour they met with Dr. Chary and went straight to work.
"Every time I work with these teams I am increasingly impressed by the way they are handling the research process just like professional scientists," said Daou. "Spitzer scientists have also been really encouraging."
"Dr. Chary has been very patient. He actually takes the time to explain to us what was going on and we really appreciate it," said Mills.
Last October, NOAO/NSF and SSC held a national competition for program participants. These 12 teachers were selected from an applicant pool of 37.
Upon their acceptance into the program, the teachers attended a series of informational workshops on using Spitzer archives, the observation planning process, and telescope and instrument capabilities. They also received training in infrared astronomy and observational techniques. After the workshops, the educators were divided into subgroups, paired up with a Spitzer or NOAO staff scientist and instructed to create an observation proposal for Spitzer.
Under the guidance of Dr. Chary, Cape Fear High School Astronomy Teacher and project team leader Harlan Devore proposed using Spitzer's Infrared Spectrometer to study the geometry, composition, and physical properties of dust surrounding the supermassive black hole in Arp102B, a galaxy located in the constellation Hercules.
"Because we can't actually see inside the black hole, we hope to learn more about its energy source by studying the dust that is about to go inside it," said Devore.
"We [students] want to learn all we can learn from this experience," added Mills.
According to Daou, the teachers were originally only given two hours of Spitzer observation time. However, because SSC Director Dr. Thomas Soifer found the proposals so impressive upon review, all six projects were accepted and the observation time was extended to three and a half hours.
Each of the student participants were chosen by their teachers, who were accepted into the program by Soifer. Mills and her classmate Brian Graves were chosen to participate because they were the top students in Devore's research class. Meanwhile, Rhode Island teens Chansaly Kerr and Ben Cordoza represented the brightest students in Howard Chun's Cranston High School physics class.
In exchange for the Spitzer observing time, the teachers will incorporate the project's data into their curriculum and present their findings at relevant teacher conferences.
"Too many people think that eighth graders can't process this information, but they can. You'll be surprised," said Traverse City East Junior High School (TCEJHS) science teacher, Lauren Chapple, when asked how he would incorporate Spitzer's data into his curriculum.
Chapple noted that he plans on breaking down Spitzer's findings into smaller parts so that his students can develop their own questions and theories.
Meanwhile, Chun plans on using the data in his Physics Two class as practical examples to complement physical theories.
For astronomy teacher Devore, the connection is more direct. He will use Spitzer's data in his "universe analysis" unit, which includes identifying stars based on absorption lines in their spectra.
According to Devore, this visit to the SSC marks just the beginning of the data analysis process.
"We will be analyzing this data for a good part of the next school year," said Devore.