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2011 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

EPO Activity: Astrobiology Education/Outreach Program for Albany Area Schools

Project Progress

In addition to the formal Education and Public Outreach programs described elsewhere in this report, members of the New York Center for Astrobiology engage in numerous other activities that reach out to K-12 students and their teachers in local area schools. Examples from the current reporting period are summarized below. Our goal is to stimulate interest in STEM disciplines using Astrobiology as the catalyst for engaging the students. The leaders in this activity are John Delano (Distinguished Teaching Professor at U Albany and EPO lead of our NAI team) and Paul Mayeur (RPI doctoral student with a strong interest in Astrobiology education and a member of the NASA Space Science Student Ambassador Program). Paul works in collaboration with Alan Oliveira (Professor of Educational Theory & Practice at U Albany) to optimize the effectiveness of his activities and curriculum development, which forms a component of his doctoral research in Multidisciplinary Science.

Curriculum Development: As part of his doctoral dissertation, Mayeur is working with Professor Oliveira (U Albany) to create an in-class activity that allows middle school students to use NASA data from 2MASS and WISE missions to create spectral energy plots, and to use them to learn how to distinguish young stellar objects from normal stars. This activity focuses on application of “inquiry-based learning” methods to teach students how to grasp physical ideas and concepts relevant to astrobiology using real data. Mayeur is working with local teachers in the classroom to test and develop the activity to optimize its effectiveness

Earth Science in Space Has No Boundaries (August 8-12, 2011): This summer institute hosted by RPI for teachers of Earth Science was supported by the Dudley Observatory and a NASA Space Grant awarded to Heidi Newberg (Professor of Physics at RPI). Using a combination of hands-on activities and lectures from prominent scientists, participating teachers discovered ways to integrate their improved knowledge of space science into their classrooms. Three NAI scientists (Delano, Roberge, Watson) and one graduate student (Mayeur) each presented 90-minute talks to a group of 15 Earth Science teachers from New York State. All of the talks by these 4 individuals were related to their work in Astrobiology.

Schenectady Museum of Science: Paul Mayeur participated as an instructor in a workshop hosted by the Schenectady Museum of Science and attended by 15 teachers from the New York Capital District. This workshop has similar goals to the Earth Science in Space institute described above. Mayeur also presents several (6 to 8) planetarium shows per month at the Museum, each lasting about 45 minutes. In addition to illustrating the night sky, these shows provide excellent opportunities to describe and discuss Astrobiology-related topics with the audience.

Public Observing at the Hirsch Observatory: The Observatory on the RPI Troy campus is open to the public every Friday evening on clear nights, and occasionally during the day for solar observing. Attendance is typically 15-20 people each week. Again, this event provides excellent opportunities to discuss Astrobiology-related topics with members of the public, often instigated by questions from the visitors themselves.

A portable telescope at Rensselaer’s Hirsch Observatory is used with a solar filter to observe sunspots.

John Delano made 21 invited presentations on Astrobiology during the reporting period to university and public audiences (~1150 attendees) in the northeastern USA. He also made two TV interviews on Astrobiology within the upstate New York region that contains a total population of ~1 million.

Note that we do not report costs in this section because, for the most part, these activities involved voluntary, unpaid participation by our team members in events without significant cost or with support from grants beyond the remit of our NAI team (such as the Space Grant award to Heidi Newberg). Mayeur’s work on curriculum development is considered a research expenditure.