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Graduate students hold astronomy workshop series for local educators

Over the past spring and summer, Chicago-area teachers learned about various astronomical topics and connected with fellow educators in the community through a series of astronomy teaching workshops jointly run by CIERA and Northwestern’s Baxter Center for Science Education

Miguel Martinez, graduate student and CIERA Board of Visitors fellow, organized three workshops that ran in May, June, and August. Hosted on Northwestern’s downtown Chicago campus, the workshops respectively covered the death of stars, citizen science projects and big data, and the experience of astronomy in research fields and classrooms.

The first goal of the workshops was to support teachers through supplying physics and astronomy content, subject areas which often overlap, according to Martinez. 

“The second goal was to try and create a place where people who teach astronomy, which is an elective course, could meet each other and hopefully network and share ideas,” Martinez said. “The third was to try to humanize the science of astronomy somehow, so that people can see that we’re real people, not just caricatures on TV.”

Each workshop centered on a talk given by Martinez and fellow CIERA members, before delving into a hands-on activity or discussion. Teachers could match gravitational wave signals to templates, gaining exposure to the kind of data analysis work done by gravitational wave scientists. They also got a taste of citizen science projects like the Zooniverse, an initiative that allows the public to contribute to crucial scientific research – like uncovering the presence of planets outside our solar system through Planet Hunters TESS or detecting glitches in gravitational wave signals through Gravity Spy.

The final workshop, which took place on August 15, was a double feature with CIERA presenters and Chicago Public School (CPS) personnel. There, Martinez and CIERA graduate student Genevieve Schroeder spoke about their respective experiences as theorists and observers in astronomy. It also featured a talk by Jones College Prep teacher Peter Podlipni, a participant in CIERA’s recently established Research Experiences for Teachers program, who discussed the impact of astronomy research experiences on classrooms. Joseph Seabloom of the CPS Department of STEM spoke about opportunities for educators to join teacher-led Professional Learning Communities. Finally, teachers had the opportunity to learn about spectroscopy with a demonstration and discussion of a Baxter Box lab in development by CIERA graduate student and Riedel Family Graduate Fellow, Kyle Rocha.

These sessions provided an opportunity for local astronomy teachers to establish a support network between districts. 

“Astronomy educators are often on an island…and therefore, they often don’t have someone to talk to for curriculum development or ideas that they can do in their classroom, or get feedback,” said CIERA Education and Outreach Coordinator James Schottelkotte. “These workshops that allow networking between those teachers hopefully have started building those peer relationships.”

The workshop series was inspired by activities carried out at the 2023 Baxter Symposium, a free day for Chicago middle and high school teachers to gain exposure to hands-on science activities. It was the first time physics-related workshops were offered, with Martinez and Rocha presenting on gravitational waves and the physics of light.

CIERA hopes to continue providing these workshops in the future, so more teachers can network and learn about the applications of astronomy and pass them on to their students. Astronomy reaches both students and educators in a variety of ways, by fostering helpful scientific skill sets or even simply changing the way we view the world around us.

“Astronomy is an interesting subject because it’s very easy to imagine it as exterior to human experience,” Martinez said. “But in a lot of very interesting ways, astronomy does impact our daily lives, and the different skill sets that astronomers have are things that are very easily generalized into other things, either inside the classroom or in professional life.”

If you are interested in supporting these or similar initiatives, join the CIERA Circle here

Article by Katie Liu