Proposal submitted in response to the
1995 IDEA Research Grants Program October 31, 1995

Title: Bringing Hot Topics in Astronomy into the Classroom

Principal Investigator:
Ms. Suzanne H. Jacoby, Education Officer
National Optical Astronomy Observatories
P.O. Box 26732, Tucson, AZ 85726-6732
Telephone: 520.318.8364 Fax: 520.318.8360

Ms. Patricia Smith, Science Education Consultant, Tucson, AZ
Mr. Jack Murray, Science Journalist, Green Valley, AZ
Dr. Beatrice Mueller, Research Associate, KPNO/NOAO/NASA
Dr. Tod Lauer, Astronomer, NOAO/NASA
Dr. Nalin Samarasinha, Research Associate, KPNO/NOAO/NASA

Authorizing Institutional Officials:
Dr. Sidney Wolff, Director
National Optical Astronomy Observatories
P.O. Box 26732, Tucson, AZ 85726-6732
Telephone: 520.318.8299 Fax: 520.318.8260
Total Amount Requested: $4980.

Abstract: We propose the development of two lesson modules for use in secondary school science classes within the context of Hot Topics in Astronomy. Each module will be based on an original article suitable for the popular press, written in a scientifically accurate way, designed to teach concepts consistent with national science education standards. One module will be based on a review article summarizing our current understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe. The second module will capitalize on the current and anticipated high level of public interest in comets. Lesson modules will be developed, tested, and refined within the one year grant period to teach background information and build student knowledge to the point of understanding the articles. Dissemination will take place via the World Wide Web of the Internet as well as in printed newsletter format, distributed through the NASA Teacher Resource Center and the NOAO Education Office. The goal is to produce these instructional materials primarily as a teacher resource, although the science articles by themselves are also applicable to public outreach efforts.

1. Intended Audience and Education Collaborators

The lesson modules are intended as resources in high school and middle school science classrooms. According to the National Science Education Standards, all students should develop an understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe as a result of their activities in grades 9-12. Further, Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy tell us students should know about asteroids and comets by the end of the 8th grade. Each lesson module could be taught in an approximately two week period, with teachers customizing the lessons to their specific classes and goals. Modules could be incorporated into earth science, chemistry, physics, and astronomy classes. The science articles on which the lesson modules are based are also appropriate for the general public.

The educational collaborators include a professional science journalist and a science education consultant with a national reputation in teaching, curriculum development, development of national education standards, and materials development. The twelve middle and high school teachers who participate in the NOAO Outreach Advisory Board (OAB) will also contribute to this effort, in the roles of advisors, pilot test teachers, and evaluators. The OAB was formed in the Fall of 1995 to advise NOAO in a variety of outreach activities. It includes teachers from all 7 school districts in the Tucson area, some of which are predominantly Hispanic, and a representative from the Tohono Oodham Indian Nation. The Board officially meets 4 times a year, but contact between Board members and the NOAO Education Officer occurs much more frequently (a few times a month).

2. Project Description

We propose the development of two lesson modules based on current Hot Topics in Astronomy for use in upper level physics, chemistry, earth science, or astronomy classes. Each module will consist of an original article written at a popular level, background information about the topics contained in the article, and lesson plans and activities to facilitate the learning. We expect to integrate ten to twelve active learning exercises into each module. Lesson modules will be developed, tested, and refined within the one year IDEA Grant cycle to teach background information and build student knowledge to the point of understanding the articles. The two topics chosen for this project are How Old is the Universe, a fundamental and controversial subject in current research astronomy, and Comets, a timely topic with large public appeal because of last years Jupiter impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL-9) and the anticipated appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in the inner Solar System. Our intention is not only to provide the science article and background information, but provide instructional materials for classroom teaching of the topics. Hand-on activities with inquiry based student participation will be introduced whenever possible. Although we have not developed the project enough at this point to provide specific examples, using activities such as How Many is 200 Billion Anyway? from the Project ASTRO Teaching Resource Notebook, where students count grains of sand in a cubic centimeter and then scale this up to the number of stars in our galaxy, could be used to demonstrate the large numbers dealt with in astronomy. Another example is the Project STAR Spectrometer Kit, which could be incorporated into lessons dealing with how we know what we know about the chemical composition of stars and galaxies.

Our science article(s) will be written by professional science journalist Jack Murray, who lives in the Tucson area, using the strong astronomy presence in our area as a resource. NASA supported members of the NOAO scientific staff will consult with the investigators and provide scientific expertise and advice as needed (see accompanying letter of support). In particular, astronomers Dr. Beatrice Mueller and Dr. Nalin Samarasinha will assist with the module on Comets and Dr. Tod Lauer will work with the investigators in developing the broader survey article How Old is the Universe. Background lessons will be developed by science educator Patricia Smith who has a national reputation in the area of science curriculum and materials development. Modules will be piloted in the classrooms of the 12 teachers on NOAOs Outreach Advisory Board.

We will disseminate the lesson modules both electronically and on paper. The World Wide Web lends itself well to disseminating these lesson modules, with the science article appearing on the top level page and hypertext links pointing to the background information and lesson modules. The National Optical Astronomy Observatories has a Home Page on the World Wide Web ( with a link to our K-12 Educational Outreach Activities. The science articles and lesson modules would be made available on the Web. Additionally, printed copies of the identical materials would be available, formatted in a multi-page newsletter for each module. The printed modules could be ordered from the Web page and distributed through the NOAO Educational Outreach Office. We would further publicize the modules through the NOAO Newsletter, printed quarterly and mailed to approximately 1800 astronomers and other users of the NOAO facilities. Two hundred copies of the newsletters would be made available to the NASA Teacher Resource Center on the University of Arizona campus. This project could be considered useful for both students and the general public, although a majority of our effort will be put toward developing lesson modules with genuine educational content for classroom use.

This project was inspired in part by the TIME Magazine cover story in March of 1995: When did the Universe Begin?. This review article described a fundamental question in current research astronomy in an interdisciplinary manner, emphasizing the progression of results and ideas that lead to the current understanding of the concepts involved. We propose to write original articles in the style of the TIME article or this project, in part to avoid copyright issues but also to allow more control over the content, to insure that we follow as closely as possible the science concepts advocated in national standards documents.

It is possible the Educational Outreach efforts of NOAO will grow in the area explored by this project. By providing a popular level article describing current research efforts coupled with the learning modules, both public outreach and classroom science education can benefit. The science articles are written with an understanding of national standards and goals; the classroom modules are based on current events giving the sense of relevance and exploration present in research science. It is this aspect of the program we will evaluate, based on feedback from the pilot teachers and self-evaluation of the investigative team. We want to know from the teachers how useful the modules are in a classroom setting, how likely they are to be utilized, and for how long. (One criticism of event based learning is that it becomes outdated quickly. How long after the SL-9 event would it be effective to teach a module based on that event?) A questionnaire will be developed asking these questions and others of the pilot teachers. We will further evaluate our approach to developing the modules, whether or not the team of science writer and educator was effective and efficient, and how the resources of NOAO can be used to best advantage in promoting this method of outreach. (NOAO will monitor comet Hale-Bopp and provide current images for public access - how can this be integrated into the lesson modules?) We will keep track of where our hours are spent as the modules are developed and piloted. Our testable goals are: [1] Have we developed learning modules that would find a place in middle and high school classrooms, and [2] What team should be assembled to best continue the effort? The 1994 IDEA Grant awarded to Dr. Frank Hill of NOAO, Active Learning Exercises in Planetary and Solar Astronomy for K-3 Students, lead directly to the establishment of the NOAO Educational Outreach Office. Similarly, Bringing Hot Topics in Astronomy into the Classroom has great leveraging potential. If our pilot program proves successful, NOAOs outreach efforts could include on-going projects of this nature with the possibility of staff expansion to carry out the work.

3. Time Line and Work Plan

Spring 1996:
Three investigators meet and decide which science concepts are to be learned and decide on the content of the science articles. At the Spring meeting of the Outreach Advisory Board, an outline of the article and lesson modules will be presented for teacher comments; an implementation and evaluation plan will be presented and discussed.

Summer 1996:
With the science articles in progress, classroom materials for background information will be developed. Science articles will be refined based on evaluation of investigators, and comments on science content from NOAO scientific staff.

Fall 1996:
Lesson modules will be piloted in classrooms taught by member teachers of the Outreach Advisory Board. Feedback on both student learning and program evaluation will be collected, by pilot teachers and our Science Education Consultant, who will make classroom observations.

Winter 1996:
Lesson modules refined based on evaluation and assessment from pilot classrooms. Science articles and accompanying lesson modules will be formatted for distribution in Newsletter format and then put on the WWW.

4. Budget

Funds are requested for distribution and two salaries, that of Science Journalist and Science Education Consultant. Overhead for administering the grant is waived, except for a 6.3% General & Administrative indirect cost rate. In addition, salary and support from the NOAO Education Office is waived; contributed at no cost is labor for documenting the modules, formatting them for Web distribution, and mailing costs for printed materials distributed through the NOAO Educational Outreach office, which receives approximately 200 letters a year from students and educators across the country requesting information and materials for astronomy education. The NOAO Public Information Office handles approximately 4 times this volume of requests from the general public, and a supply of Newsletters including the articles would be made available for distribution through their office.

Printing costs for 1000 Newsletters @ $1.80 each$1800.
Science journalist, one 4 page article850.
Science Education Consultant, develop two modules of approximately two weeks each , write and administer questionnaire to teachers, make classroom observations2000.
Indirect Cost Rate at 7.1% of $4650.330.
Total Budget:$4980.

Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, AAAS, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993.

National Science Education Standards (DRAFT), National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, National Academy Press, Washington DC, November, 1994.

The Universe at Your Fingertips: Project ASTRO Resource Notebook, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1995.

TIME Magazine, March 6, 1995, ''When did the Universe Begin'', pp. 76-85.

Page created and maintained by Suzanne H. Jacoby (
Last Updated: 11 June 1996
Artwork by students of the Satori School, Tucson, Arizona

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