Students in Georgia high schools will be able to reach for the stars - or at least study them - in part thanks to an astronomy workshop for teachers being held at Georgia Southern University.
Georgia Southern was among the recipients of a $1.4 million grant from NASA last year in order to form the Georgians Experience Astronomy Research in Schools (GEARS) project along with Columbus State University and the Georgia Department of Education.
The purpose of GEARS is to change the way astronomy is taught in Georgia high schools, according to Georgia Southern physics professor Sarah Higdon, who also serves as an institutional P.I. for the university.
"Instead of teaching out of a textbook, we wanted to teach the students how to do research and quality-based activities," Higdon said.
Higdon said that astronomy is already being offered to students in some high schools in Georgia, but that the workshops are introducing teachers to a new way of teaching the course with data mining from NASA databases and through research. She said that she hopes that the new curriculum standards will allow astronomy courses to snowball throughout the state.
Zo Webster, the institutional P.I. from Columbus State, said that the biggest challenge has been trying to teach so much material in a two week period.
“We’re giving the teachers a fire hose approach to astronomy,” Webster said “We’re trying to introduce them to as many technological tools as possible so that they can bring the real data into their classrooms.
Some of the things the teachers are discussing are solar systems, other forms of life in the universe and forecasting space weather. Wednesday, the teachers spent time looking for new planets, reviewing computer models of stars and took part in some stargazing in Georgia Southern's planetarium.
Jamie Akin, a science teacher at Howard High School, in Macon, said that the workshop and the tools provided will allow her to help students become more interested in astronomy.
"If I can show them, if they can do it themselves, and then they’re going to be more interested in programs on the computer," Akin said. Some kids go right to the computer and they have that understanding pretty quickly."
Akin said that the best way to get students in high school interested in astronomy is through a “hands-on” approach to learning.
“I’ll be teaching astronomy in January,” Akin said. “One of our first topics is ‘Are there aliens out there?’ and so the first thing we have to know is if there are planets out there. I’m sure we’re going to start by discussing how to find planets around other star systems.”
Higdon said that she hopes this kind of learning will convince some students to pursue a career in astronomy.
“The thing that drew me into astronomy was that it’s all about discovery and making connections that you haven’t made before,” Higdon said. “It’s one of the few disciplines that really takes you away from planet Earth and starts making you think about the universe as a whole.”