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2012 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2011 – AUG 2012

EPO Activity: Education/Outreach Program in Astrobiology 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 a wide spectrum of other activities with the common goal of reaching 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.
Teaching STEM disciplines to middle school students using Astrobiology
As part of his doctoral dissertation, Paul Mayeur (RPI) is working with Doug Whittet (RPI) and Alan Oliveira (education specialist at U Albany) to develop an in-class activity that allows middle school students to use NASA data from the 2MASS database and the WISE mission to create spectral energy plots, and to apply them to the problem of discriminating between young stellar objects and normal stars. The activity is now viewable online at:
It 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.
Planetary Science and Astronomy for the Next Generation of Science Standards
This summer program (July 16-20, 2012) is a continuation of the “Earth Science in Space Has No Boundaries” program reported last year, hosted by RPI for teachers of Earth Science with support from 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 scientists, 40 participating teachers discovered ways to integrate their improved knowledge of space science into their classrooms. John Delano and Paul Mayeur were active participants in the running of the program and gave presentations related to their work in Astrobiology.
Lauren Cassidy (RPI graduate student in Linda McGown’s group) mentored a student from the Emma Willard School intern program during academic year 2011/12, and two students from Troy High School participating in STEP (the Science Technology Entry Program) in Summer 2012. All three students gained valuable research experience in the McGown lab, carrying out experiments relating to prebiotic chemistry. The goal of STEP is to engage underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students in activities designed to develop problem-solving skills and a broad knowledge base prior to entry into post-secondary schools. Funded by Rensselaer and the New York State Education Department, the goal of STEP is to increase access to STEM professions for these students.
Doug Whittet hosted an 8th grade student from a local school system for a job shadowing project. The student, who is both bright and passionate about astrobiology, visited RPI for a day and spent it learning of and observing at first hand many of the activities of the NY Center for Astrobiology.
Paul Mayeur presented several (6 to 8) planetarium shows per month at the Schenectady Museum of Science, each lasting about 45 minutes with an average attendance of ~15 per show. 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 is typically attended by 15-20 people each week, including groups from local area schools. This event also provides excellent opportunities to discuss Astrobiology-related topics with members of the public, often instigated by questions from the visitors themselves.