Middle schoolers in three Massachusetts communities are peering deep into the night skies this year, controlling robotic telescopes on their own to observe the moon, the planets, and the stars.
The children are part of a unique after-school partnership between Harvard University and the communities of Cambridge, Lynn, and Fall River, Mass. Called ITEAMS, for Innovative Technology-Enabled Astronomy for Middle Schools, the program is funded by the National Science Foundation and aims to use astronomy to introduce students to subjects central to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It also aims to keep them engaged in math and science at a time in their academic lives when some students are turning away from those subjects.
“Astronomy is intrinsically interesting to everyone,” said Bruce Ward, senior research associate and ITEAMS manager at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “This [astronomy] becomes a wonderful hook to get kids to see the value of STEM.”
The program is run by science educators at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), whose researchers probe fundamental questions about the universe, such as its probable creation in the big bang, its expansion afterward, and what conditions are like on planets circling other stars.
Through an online interface, the students can give instructions to three robotic telescopes located on the CfA’s roof in Cambridge and at the Whipple Observatory in Arizona. The short, boxy telescopes rely on the same CCD technology to take images that is employed in millions of digital cameras. Images taken of the night sky are e-mailed to the students the next morning for processing and discussion in class.
Ward said the program was originally designed for 60 kids across all three towns, but twice that many showed interest, causing organizers to expand it. About half of the students are beginning their second year in the program, Ward said, allowing them to move on to more sophisticated imaging.
“The kids are voting with their feet, and really coming,” Ward said.
At the students’ instructions, the telescopes point at distant objects in the sky, from the familiar moon and nearby planets, such as Jupiter, to mysterious spiral galaxies and interstellar clouds of gas and dust called “nebulas.” Because the telescopes follow the students’ instructions, Ward said, the images they take can be imperfect: over- or underexposed, off-color, or blurry. By correcting their mistakes, students learn not only about the objects they’re targeting, but also about light and color, distance and perspective.
“The most important factor is that you learn from your mistakes. That’s an article of science, you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes,” Ward said. “We want kids to go down blind alleys. You don’t take a 30-second exposure of the moon. They get guidance, yes, but not controlling guidance.”
Students also go on field trips and visit the telescope on the CfA’s roof at least once to see it. During an October visit to Cambridge by Fall River students, students not only met their robotic partner in the ITEAMS endeavor, but they also got to see a bit of U.S. astronomical history, visiting telescopes it shares roof space with, including the Great Refractor, built in 1847, which for 20 years was the nation’s largest telescope.
During their day at Harvard, the students also visited the University’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Visualization Lab and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, and participated in class exercises whose aim was to help them better understand the concepts of distance, size, and scale.
The students, from the Matthew J. Kuss School in Fall River, were shepherded by science teachers Sarah Chapin and Sandy Sullivan, who said they are beginning a research project focused on Jupiter and its four biggest moons.
“Getting to use the telescope is very exciting for the students and myself,” Sullivan said.
Lin Tucker, coordinator of science and engineering at the Benjamin Banneker Public Charter School in Cambridge, said that, as an after-school program, ITEAMS gives teachers flexibility to cover topics that are of interest to students that may not show up on required tests.
“It lets us play around with some ideas that are not on MCAS but which are inherently interesting to kids,” Tucker said, adding that ideas introduced during ITEAMS sessions can make their way back to the regular classroom. “Student [mental] models of what space is, how objects in space are — their size, how they relate to each other — is very fuzzy.”
Ward said the program is aimed at underserved communities and seeks to increase the awareness of opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math for girls and in Hispanic and African-American communities.
Science teacher Laurie Ferhani, who runs the ITEAMS program at Amigos School in Cambridge, said that before ITEAMS there was no way for students to do hands-on astronomy. She said two students from last year’s program come from family backgrounds where it’s unlikely they’d have similar opportunities without such a program. The students, she said, have since moved on to ninth grade but have remained interested, asking her whether there are similar programs for older students.
Annie and Jaylin, both Banneker fifth-graders, were enthusiastic about their after-school program, which is run by Tucker and Barbara Brothers, Banneker’s head of after-school programs. Annie said she enjoys seeing the stars and constellations in the night sky and wanted to see Jupiter up close. She also instructed the telescope to take a picture of the pinwheel galaxy, because she thought it looked similar to our own Milky Way.
ITEAMS involves not just teachers, students, and science educators, but also community volunteers from the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston and a group of retired Raytheon engineers from the Retirees’ School Volunteer Association. To assess effectiveness, students are tested before and after the program. The effort is in the second of three years.
Though ITEAMS is an after-school enrichment program, its Internet interface is available to students even from home computers, allowing them to work independently once they know what they’re doing.
Jesse, a sixth-grader at Cambridge’s Amigos School, hit the ground running after beginning the program this fall, exploring the MicroObservatory Web site at home and taking a few pictures.
“She immediately got on the computer,” said Jesse’s mother, Laurie Rothstein. “I knew she was really excited about it. This is making a connection to the real world.”