Astronomy in Seattle: 2015 AAS Conference Day 1


HG-WELS Caltech-s

The entire HG-WELS (Hungry Giants-WISE Excess Lithium Study) group at Caltech: July, 2014.

From January 4th through 8th, 2015, I travelled with four of my students to Seattle to present posters at the American Astronomical Society Conference. Our experiences will be detailed in the next several posts.

Not many high school teachers or students get a chance to present at professional science conferences. We were able to do this through our participation in the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP) under the direction of Dr. Luisa Rebull of Caltech. We had travelled to Caltech the previous summer to learn how to use WISE, 2MASS, IRAS, and other infrared data housed at IPAC, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center. We joined with students from two other schools: Millard South High School in Omaha, NE and Glencoe High School in Hillsboro, Oregon and with three teachers: Estefania Larsen, John Gibb, and Elin Deeb. Altogether ten students, four teachers, and Dr. Rebull were involved in our project. Another NITARP team under Dr. Varoujan Gorjian of JPL/Caltech also attended, as well as several teams with teachers who were alumni of NITARP. They continued to do their own research and created and submitted posters on their own, then found their own funding to get to Seattle.

Elena and Kendal with Luisa

Elena and Kendall with Dr. Luisa Rebull at Caltech, calculating flux densities for K-giant stars in our study using WISE and 2MASS data.


We decided our project at the previous AAS in National Harbor, Maryland in January 2014. Dr. Rebull proposed several ideas to the four of us, all using infrared data from IPAC, and we liked one idea best. It involved looking at K-giant stars that were noted for having a higher than normal abundance of lithium and faster than usual rotation. The most likely explanation for these star’s unusual properties was that as they ran out of hydrogen in their cores and started to expand into an orange giant star, they had consumed their own inner planets. These planets could have provided an extra angular momentum kick that caused the stars’ rotations to speed up, and the extra lithium could have come from the planets as well. Lithium is normally destroyed in the nuclear reactions of a star.

CCD K-22

Color-color diagram (CCD) for our K-giant stars, comparing 2MASS K – WISE 22 versus K. Diagram by John Gibb.

We proposed that if stars were ingesting planets, then we might see shrouds or disks of dust or gas surrounding these stars as further proof. Such a shroud or disk would show up as an infrared excess in the WISE, 2MASS, and other databases. We could determine this by looking at spectral energy distributions (SEDs) of these stars. Dr. Rebull built a database of likely candidate stars, which we analyzed during the spring and early summer of 2014. We looked up the stars in the IRSA finder chart, created representative color images, and put together a detailed spreadsheet on our notes. The stars came from several previous studies, especially done by de la Reza, et al, using older IRAS data, and a recent survey by Jolene Carlberg. Looking at the de la Reza stars with newer WISE and 2MASS data, we saw that many appeared to have source confusion (several stars in a cluster with the K-giant not at the central coordinates) or were not K-giant stars at all.

Source confusion RGB-s

An RGB combined image of one of our possible targets for NITARP. This image takes the 4.6 micron filter as blue, the 12 micron filter as green, and the 22 micron filter as red. It is an example of source confusion, since the K-giant (the large reddish star) is not at the center of the search coordinates (yellow circle).

I had three students interested in helping with this project during the spring of 2014: Elena, Kendall, and Rosie. I met with them once a week during the late spring and early summer to go over the list of stars and teach them how to use the IPAC data. We travelled to Caltech in late July to meet with the other teachers and their students. I’ve documented this trip in great detail in my previous posts, so you can read about what we did and how we analyzed the data and built SEDs there.

David Black AAS 2015 reg

My registration for the AAS conference in Seattle.

During the fall of 2014, we needed to put everything together into a nicely laid out poster, create an abstract, and submit it to the AAS portal by the deadline in late September. We (the four teachers and Dr. Rebull) communicated back and forth on a weekly basis by telecon. Students contributed many of the images we used, and helped proofread and edit the text. We had to decide which representative IR to RGB images to use, which SEDs, which Color-Color and Color-Magnitude Diagrams, and many other details. We used one large Powerpoint slide to lay this out, which is standard for astronomers. I’m used to using Adobe InDesign or other desktop publishing software, and had never tried to create an oversized slide before, but it worked out well. We went through several drafts as the fall progressed, finalizing the last details in mid December.

Elena with concept web

Elena working on her concept web during Fall 2014.

In addition to the science poster for the students to present, the four teachers worked up an education poster based on what students had learned from the summer training. We had the students create concept webs during the summer, and during the fall each teacher had the same students create follow up concept webs to see if they still retained most of what they had learned. The other teachers sent them to me for clean-up, and I added webs from my own students. Elin Deeb did the abstract, final write up, and lay out of this poster with our help. Dr. Rebull printed out this and our science poster and brought them with her.

HG-WELS abstract submission preview

Meanwhile, I had to get everyone registered for the AAS conference itself by the early bird deadline and get plane tickets worked out. We had a new student at Walden School who was very interested in joining us, named Julie. NITARP would pay for only myself and two students, so I had to find funds elsewhere for two more students. I applied for a grant to cover this from the newly created Utah STEM Action Center.

HG-WELS Ed Poster Abstract draft DEEB-with comments

Science poster draft

A draft of our science poster for AAS, nearing completion.

I also had to work up and submit an abstract and lay out my own educational poster based on my work the past summer at Brigham Young University. I figured as long as I was going to AAS, I might as well present my own work, too. My previous three posts explain the lesson plans I was presenting, but now I had to create a large Powerpoint slide, put in the text and images, and get it all printed out. I did most of this during winter break and took the poster to Kinkos for printing just the day before we left. I rolled it up in a plastic bag and packed it on the plane with me.

Rosie on the SeaTac light rail

Rosie on the light rail from SeaTac Airport to downtown Seattle; Jan. 4, 2015.

Travelling to Seattle:

On Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015 I met my four students at Walden School and we were driven to the Salt Lake airport by a shuttle van. We checked our bags and made it through Security with plenty of time to spare, and waited for our 10:40 flight. I handed out maps of Seattle to the students along with contact phone numbers. The flight itself was uneventful, and we landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport and got out bags from the carousel. We had to hike for a ways through the covered parking lot and along a bridge way to the light rail terminal. I bought us all tickets, then we boarded and headed in to Seattle. It was drizzling a light rain (pretty normal for here) and I enjoyed the trip into the city. We passed through a tunnel and several neighborhoods, then got off at the main underground terminal at Westlake Station. We wheeled our bags through the light drizzle along Pine Street to the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Seattle map-s

A map I created of the area around the Washington Convention Center, where the AAS conference was being held.

Seattle from hotel

Part of downtown Seattle as seen from the Grand Hyatt Hotel; Jan. 4, 2015.

We got checked in. My students had a room, and I shared a room with John Gibb. We were all starving by now, so Julie, Rosie, and I explored around and found a wonderful crepe and burger restaurant where Olive Street splits a few blocks from the hotel. We walked back to the hotel and picked up the others, then walked to our NITARP meeting at the Northwood Suites, across the bridge over the I-5 freeway at 3:00. They were just finishing up the orientation for the new teachers, and we all filed in and presented our posters to the entire group of about 40 teachers and students. We’ve certainly come a long ways in just one year – I actually feel as if I belong here now, that I really do know what it’s like to be an astronomer.

Lobby of the Grand Hyatt

Lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Seattle, WA.

We walked back across the bridge to the Convention Center. The registration desks were at the top of a long series of escalators, with the AAS sign at the top. We picked up our packets and nametags. We then went to the college reception (we’d signed up for this) at 5:30. I wanted my students to look around and see the various graduate programs in astronomy available out there, and perhaps make contacts. Julie is interested in astrophysics as a major, so she especially wanted to meet the program directors even though she is a sophomore in high school. Dr. Eric Hintz was there with the Brigham Young University program, along with several of the students I had worked with over the summer. Olivia Mulherrin, one of the two REU students I had worked closely with, was there to present a poster of her work. Angel wasn’t able to come. Dr. Hintz had some giveaway items, and I picked up a T-shirt and some BYU truffles. Yum! Dr. Meg Urey, President of AAS, welcomed everyone.

Crepe place

Julie and Rosie in front of the Saley (savory) crepe shop on Olive St. in Seattle; Jan. 4, 2015.

We then went to the Opening Reception at 7:00. We posed by the sign, and made arrangements for when to meet at the end. I didn’t want to stifle the students’ desire to explore and get to know people, but also knew this might be uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable myself in such social situations. Kendall and Elena were independent enough and hung out with Meghan from Oregon, whom they had met the previous summer, but I made sure Julie and Rosie felt safe without hovering over them.

Eric Hintz at reception

Dr. Eric Hintz of Brigham Young University at the graduate program reception at the AAS conference in Seattle; Jan. 4, 2015.

I was nervous enough about my students that I didn’t really relax much myself, and the lines were long and the food not as good as last year, so I didn’t quite get enough to eat. I was glad for the burger I had eaten before. We met back together at 9:00 and headed back to the hotel. It had been a long day.

Kendall Julie Rosie Elena at AAS recept

Kendall, Julie, Rosie, and Elena at the American Astronomical Society conference in Seattle; Jan. 4, 2015.

About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, Earth science, physics, biology, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science in Utah. I've won numerous awards as an educator and am a frequent presenter at state and national educator conferences. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador. I learned of the Indonesian education system and taught classes in astronomy and chemistry at a high school near Banjarmasin in southern Borneo. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. This Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project ( will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
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