|University of Washington astronomers, with an assist from local amateur astronomical societies, are preparing to head into Puget Sound-area schools for the second year to bring hands-on science experience to K-12 students.
Last year, Project Astro scientists conducted demonstrations to show the vastness of our solar system and helped students understand the phases of the moon. They built telescopes and sundials. Most importantly, they fostered an interest in science.
“We’re not trying to make astronomers of these kids or say that astronomy is the best science. It just has a natural appeal. Astronomy is a great way to get kids excited about science,” said Woodruff Sullivan, a UW astronomy professor and director of Project Astro for this area.
The project, begun in 1993 by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in San Francisco and financed by the National Science Foundation, has made its way into several cities across the country. It was launched in the Seattle area last year. NSF picked up all of the $33,000 tab in the first year and is paying half the cost this year. Next year, the local program will be on its own.
But it already has established a firm foothold in elementary and secondary schools throughout the region. The program reached 750 students last year, and 1,400 will take part this year. The number of partnerships, each pairing a teacher with an astronomer, has grown from 25 last year to 43. Some astronomers have more than one partnership – one has three in two schools.
The teachers and astronomers met July 17 and 18 in a workshop to prepare for this school year. Each team picks its own curriculum, often depending on interests and expertise, and the astronomer agrees to visit the classroom at least four times during the school year.
Sullivan’s Project Astro partnership last year was at Olympic View Elementary School in Seattle. Students learned about conditions on the sun and planets, even writing a travel brochure for Jupiter. They also learned how the sun’s position can be used to tell time or the season, and they made 8-inch ceramic discs for a sundial that soon will decorate a barren outdoor wall of the school.
The program aims to have more than one teacher at a given school involved in the program, said Karen Peterson, a molecular biologist who doubles as Project Astro coordinator. “We make an effort to get multiple teachers in the same school because then they can support each other. There seems to be a lot more parent involvement in schools where there are multiple teachers taking part.”
Seven UW faculty members, three graduate students and four undergraduate students are participating, but with so much demand the program has come to rely heavily on the region’s amateur astronomers.
One is Frank Gilliland of Issaquah, who recently gave up his state Department of Transportation job. Work was taking too much of his telescope time, he said half-jokingly. He will work at Tiger Mountain Alternative High School with teacher Sheila Thacker. Last year, he traveled to Cascade View Elementary School in Tukwila.
One of Gilliland’s favorite demonstrations uses an area the size of 10 football fields, with an 8-inch-diameter ball to represent the sun. Other bodies are placed a proportionate distance away. It’s 26 paces from the “sun” to the peppercorn representing Earth, then 14 more to Mars, another 95 to Jupiter, 112 more to Saturn and then 200 or more to the rest of the planets in succession. When you get to the outer planets and look back to the 8-inch sun, “it’s a speck,” he says, and that gives a real understanding of the scale of the solar system and the universe.
“Astronomy and Project Astro has changed my life,” Gilliland said. “It’s hard for me to go out to a dark site and look up and see all the lights and know that I’m one of the few people who gets it. I want to share that.”