I haven’t written any posts recently for this blog for several reasons: partly because I’m not actively teaching astronomy or astrobiology this semester (winter 2014) and partly because I’ve been so busy with so many things that I haven’t had time to stay up to date. I’ve written several grants, traveled to Boston to present at the National Science Teachers Association conference, taken an online class to prepare for our move to an International Baccalaureate school, finished a video for the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, etc. But in the midst of all this craziness there have been developments related to astronomy education. I will explore each of these in more detail in later posts, but for now here’s a rundown/summary of what’s happening in my life:
I met Dr. Eric Hintz of Brigham Young University’s Physics and Astronomy Department while at the AAS meeting in Washington, D.C. this January. He told me more about the NSF funded Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program at BYU. As soon as I returned home I filled out the online application. I was notified in April that I have been accepted into the program and will work with Dr. Hintz for a 10-week period this summer. It carries a stipend roughly equal to my salary at Walden School and I will be an Adjunct Research Faculty there for the summer. I get to be a professional astronomer and make some extra money, plus bring back $1200 worth of equipment to my classes!
Air Force Association Award:
In my frequent search for opportunities in aerospace education, I looked through the Air Force Association website. I had received a small grant from them several years ago that helped fund our science demonstration/showcase program at Walden, where students develop lesson plans and demonstrations that they present to classes in our elementary school and to the public at an evening Science Showcase. Looking through the site, I came across an application for a Teacher of the Year award available through each chapter of the AFA. There are three chapters in Utah, and given my background with NASA educational programs, I figured I had a good shot. I applied in February and received a phone call from Grant Hicenbotham on April 17 (right in the middle of parent teacher conferences) that I had won the Salt Lake Chapter award and the State AFA Teacher of the Year award. There would be a cash award and a salmon barbeque dinner at the Hill Aerospace Museum on June 18.
NITARP Training and Tasks:
Since we have now chosen our topic to study for NITARP (red giant stars that may be consuming their own planets), our next step is to develop a solid list of target stars to study. The four teachers (myself, John, Stef, and Elin) have held telecons with Dr. Rebull each Monday at 5:00 to write up our proposal, develop a master list from three previous papers that studied stars that had excess lithium and unusually fast rotation. We’re going to take the next step and look to see if the same stars have an excess of IR radiation in bands that would indicate a shell or ring of dusty debris orbiting around it, leftover from planets that have been pulled apart. But not all of the stars on the lists for the respective papers are good candidates (or possibly not even stars). So after we merged the lists, we’ve gone through each star in Finder window of IRSA, which is a software package that allows the images in IPAC to be loaded and analyzed.
We’re searching through several missions, including DSS (the Digitized Sky Survey, an Air Force mission to identify natural IR sources to prevent heat-seaking missiles from getting spoofed by false targets), 2MASS (the Two-Micron All Sky Survey), WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer), and IRAS (Infrared Astronomy Satellite). It’s been a tedious job to analyze the images and see if we have a good point source – not too bright or saturated, but without other stars overlapping the target star. The IRAS data and early DSS data was gathered several decades ago and some of the stars have high enough proper motions that they have drifted in the field of view. Some of the images have so many sources clumped together in star clusters that the software that did the data reduction got confused. In some cases we have nebulosity or other sources of contamination. As of this writing in mid-June we are going through the list of worrisome stars and deciding which ones to drop.
Meanwhile, I have begun training the students who will go with me to Caltech at the end of July. I’ve been showing them the software and databases, explaining what we will be doing in more detail, and preparing them. We’ve taken a break because two of the three were gone on an expedition to India for three weeks but are now back safely. Once we get to Caltech, we’ll learn data reduction procedures, how to do photometry at different wavelengths for the target stars, and how to chart all of this as a Spectral Energy Distribution (SED) curve. Hopefully, something will come out of this analysis that we can draw conclusions from.
An Article for The Science Teacher:
Over a year ago I wrote and submitted an article to The Science Teacher, NSTA’s journal for high school teachers. It was finally accepted, and is now in print. But I’ll explain more about this in my next post.
So no rest for the weary, onward and upward, and no matter where you go, there you are.