Thousands of high school students will study real stars, thanks to a $2.5 million NSF grant to UC Berkeley educators

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--A month ago, when California high school student Naomi Augustine wanted to see a photograph of an exploding star, she sent a request to telescopes in Australia and America. A few weeks later - faster than any astronomer could expect - the image, taken on or near the night of May 19, arrived on her computer.

"Wow, there it is!" University of California, Berkeley, astrophysicist Carl Pennypacker recalls Naomi shouting, as she pointed to a bright white spot in the image of a black sky displayed on her screen. The Albany high school student then proceeded to measure the celestial distance of objects in the photo, the first of several astronomical calculations she would make.

Naomi is one of thousands of students across the country who will benefit from a $2.5 million grant to expand Pennypacker's Hands-On Universe (HOU) - an educational program that teaches astronomy, math and science to high school students by bringing them professional grade telescopic images of the universe.

The grant from the National Science Foundation, awarded to UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science - a national leader in creating science and math curricula for schools - will allow the program to expand from 60,000 students today to an estimated 300,000 in five years.

"Within a year, kids will be discovering supernovae on a regular basis," said Pennypacker. "We know they can do it. Better yet, we know they want to."

Pennypacker, a research astronomer at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, began HOU in the early 1990s by providing students at 40 high schools with star images from UC Berkeley's Leuschner Observatory. The program, now based at the Lawrence Hall of Science, since has expanded to include about 1,000 teachers in the United States and abroad, with images from telescopes in Sydney, Australia, Colorado and New Mexico channeled through the UC Berkeley site.

Already, students using HOU have identified a new asteroid and captured a rare early image of a supernova, although they didn't know at the time that it was a supernova.

The new money immediately will double the size of the program, with the ultimate aim, said Pennypacker, of reaching a million students with images from most major telescopes on earth.

He currently is attempting to bring a space telescope on line.

"This is an exciting project," said National Science Foundation officer Joe Stewart. "We want to make it available to many more young people."

In addition to studying photographs of the night sky, students eventually will be allowed to point a telescope and do real time viewing.

"Can you imagine how it feels to be an inner city kid controlling a million dollar telescope? They go bonkers," said Pennypacker, who has allowed a few students in downtown Chicago to operate the Misato telescope in Japan, using the Internet.

"This is so different from traditional book learning," he said. "Here they are working with real data and trying to solve real scientific problems. It pulls in all kinds of kids, some who have trouble reading, others who have failed in school."

One recent student, for example, wanted to be an oceanographer, but failed biology. Putting aside her dreams of becoming a scientist, she decided instead to become a pastry cook. Through the HOU program, she recovered her optimism and again is aiming at a career in oceanography.

To expand the program sufficiently, Pennypacker and Hall of Science co-project director Alan Gould plan to create an on-line training program for teachers. Currently, teachers learn how to use the HOU program through intensive summer workshops taught by 20 master teachers- soon to expand to 60 - in different regions of the country. This face-to-face teaching will be compared with on-line learning, using new tutorial materials and teacher guides.

The on-line workshops are slated to begin in the spring of next year. Information on the program can be accessed through the website <>.

Besides allowing students to identify previously unknown objects in the sky, HOU teaches them to measure and analyze their own data, using the methods of a professional scientist. They have, for example, studied the moon's craters, investigated variable stars and timed sequential images of Jupiter's moons, while learning fundamental laws of celestial mechanics.

"This a wonderful way to learn math and science," enthused Pennypacker. "After all, the material in our human bodies comes from exploding stars. We are all star children in a fundamental way."

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