Academic journal article Science Scope

Engaging Students in Independent Astronomy Research Projects

Academic journal article Science Scope

Engaging Students in Independent Astronomy Research Projects

Article excerpt

A Framework for K--12 Science Education, on which the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) was based, is divided into three dimensions: scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas (NRC 2012). With these dimensions serving as a guide, teachers can create lessons in which middle-grade (6-8) students develop a deeper understanding of Earth and space concepts, their implications, and their applications across other content areas.

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The most relevant NGSS standard is MS-ESS1: Earth's place in the universe (Achieve Inc. 2013), which contains disciplinary core idea ESS1.A: The universe and its stars. One component of this disciplinary core idea, "Earth and its solar system are part of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of many galaxies in the universe," could serve as the basis of an independent research project where students compare and catalog some of the different shapes of galaxies (see Figure 1 to see how this project connects with the NGSS) (NRC 2012, p. 174). A model project, Cool Cosmos, is described below. As part of this project, students requested images of three different-shaped galaxies from a robotic-controlled remote telescope and then used image-processing software to bring out colors and other details

Background: Images in astronomy

Astronomy is not exactly a hands-on science; many astronomers rely on data about remote and distant objects obtained through instruments such as ground-based, or orbiting, telescopes. In most cases, the data collected are not the image or picture one sees online and in print. Many of these data are collected using imaging instruments, such as a charge-coupled device (CCD), and then the image data undergo image processing using software designed to make otherwise unseen features more visible.

Image processing is the heart of much of modern astronomy; as image technology has advanced, the ability to see more-distant objects, as well as more detail in objects, has likewise advanced. The goal of astrophotography, the imaging of celestial objects by both the amateur and professional astronomer, is to capture the maximum amount of light radiation possible. For telescopes, size matters, meaning that the larger the mirror, the more light radiation may be captured. We also know that the location of the telescope matters, an issue primarily dealing with optical astronomy and the interference of Earth's atmosphere. Now there are telescopes in Earth's orbit outside the Earth's atmosphere. By being outside the atmosphere, the telescope is not limited to what it can see, as opposed to having some forms of radiation blocked by the atmosphere. There is also a new technology called adaptive optics, in which the telescope mirror flexes to compensate for turbulence in the atmosphere that would normally make the object's image go in and out of focus. Whatever the means of observation, the raw data collected by the instruments need to be processed into a usable format.

In the beginning, astronomy was done using the eyepiece of a telescope, and objects observed were sketched on paper. While this is still a practice among astronomers, the introduction of the camera for capturing images quickly became the norm. As with any developing technology, astrophotography has evolved, in this case from the use of chemical-based photographic plates and film and specialized, hypersensitized film, to the use of devices equipped with CCD. The CCD, which was invented at Bell Laboratories in 1969, is a device with a light-sensitive surface. A CCD-based picture is constructed from the data created when light energy strikes the CCD. This light energy is converted to an electrical charge, with the amount or intensity of the electrical charge then assigned a series of computer bytes that represent a specific color from the visible spectrum.

There is an interesting history of how telescope technology has evolved and how our perception of the universe has changed as a result. …

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