Feature

Student Discoveries
05.30.07
Timothy Spuck is not just teaching scientific discovery: he's living what he teaches. And his students are making discoveries of their own.

Students talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson
In his 20-year teaching career, Spuck and his students have captured an image of a supernova, discovered Kuiper Belt objects and found young, sun-like stars in the early stages of formation.

Image to left: Tim Spuck's students discuss their search for T Tauri stars with renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Astronomical Society conference in January 2007. Credit: Tim Spuck

"There's nothing more exciting to watch than seeing students reach that 'aha' moment where all of the sudden they've made the connection and they truly understand the concept," Spuck said. "These kids learn something because they need to know it, because if they don't know it they're not going to make progress in their research. They're out there saying, 'I don't want to do this for a grade. I want to do this because this is a mystery I'm trying to solve.'"

Spuck has worked to bring authentic astronomy research into his classroom throughout his teaching career. He's even researching the process of authentic science as the basis for his doctoral dissertation. When completed, he will hold a doctorate degree in curriculum and instruction in science education. He said doing authentic science results in young people becoming critical thinkers. "Critical thinking is one of the most important skills that we can get our students to achieve," Spuck said. "The authentic approach provides many more opportunities for kids to develop critical thinking skills."

A member of NASA's Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, Spuck teaches science at Oil City High School. He also teaches an astronomy course at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville. He started teaching in Oil City, Penn., in 1988, shortly after receiving his bachelor's degree in Earth and space science and planetarium management. He also has a master's degree in science education. Over the years, he's taught space science, Earth science and physical science to eighth- and ninth-graders and sponsored the astronomy and outdoors clubs.

Spuck said the importance of learning and discovery was demonstrated to him by his parents. "I would go outside at night with my dad, and he would show me where Venus was, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Orion and other constellations," Spuck remembered. "I became hooked, and would spend my nights outside just looking up and wondering. My dad inspired me to look beyond what my eyes could see, and seek out new knowledge. He himself never stopped learning. As a child, I can vividly remember each night, my mom and dad sitting at the table reading when I went off to bed. I didn't have much in the way of material wealth growing up, but it was a very rich environment."

Spuck has involved his students in scientific exploration by seeking research time on various telescopes, including NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. His students have used the research time and the resulting images to make some very impressive discoveries.

Spitzer image of Witch Head Nebula
In 1994, two of his students used images from the Leuschner Telescope in Berkeley, Calif., to record the first sighting of SN 1994I, a supernova in the Whirlpool Galaxy. Spuck said the two girls wanted to take pictures of galaxy M51, or Messier 51, to try to capture a picture of the galaxy's black hole. What they ended up finding, Spuck said, was the supernova.

Image to right: An image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope used by Tim Spuck and his students to discover new T Tauri stars. The baby stars are seen as pink dots in the infrared image. Credit: NASA

The girls actually captured the last image from Earth pre-supernova and the first image from Earth as the supernova was taking off. The discovery was serendipitous, Spuck said. "It's rare that you ever capture a supernova this early in the process," he said. The discovery provided astronomers with some of the earliest supernovae light curve data on record.

Four years later, in 1998, another pair of Spuck's students assisted in the verification of one of the first 100 Kuiper Belt Objects. Students at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts spotted the object, and Spuck's students confirmed its location. Both schools are credited with the discovery and verification of the object, officially designated as Kuiper Belt Object 1998 FS144.

In 2001, several of Spuck's students calculated the Hubble constant using new data from the Arecibo Radio Telescope. The Hubble constant indicates the rate at which the universe is expanding. The students specifically measured neutral hydrogen profiles for far-away galaxies. The profiles help astronomers determine distances, rotation velocities and hydrogen composition for distant galaxies. More precise profiles can help scientists and astronomers calculate a more exact Hubble constant. Spuck's students calculated a Hubble constant of 61.2 km/sec/Mpc (kilometers per second per megaparsec). This rate is slightly less than the traditionally accepted value but in line with recent studies.

"The scientific contribution is only part of the project," Spuck said. "The most important aspect is that high school students are functioning as scientists, using the same tools and running into similar problems. ... They are learning that science is not passive, but active."

The current project of finding newborn stars started in 2004. The Spitzer Science Center on the campus of the California Institute of Technology was seeking teachers with a background in research astronomy to participate in the Spitzer Space Telescope Research Program for Teachers and Students. The Spitzer Space Telescope is part of NASA's Great Observatories Program, and is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Spuck was one of 12 teachers nationally who were selected to receive one hour of research time using Spitzer.

The Spitzer Space Telescope launched in 2003 on a mission to obtain images and spectra by detecting the infrared energy, or heat, radiated by objects in space. Spitzer is the largest infrared telescope ever launched into space and one of four orbiting observatories in NASA's Great Observatories Program. Each observatory looks at the universe in a different kind of light: visible, gamma rays, X-rays and infrared. Other missions in this project include the Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory (which operated from 1991 until 2000) and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Spuck and his students are using Spitzer to hunt for T Tauri stars, which are young, sun-like stars in their early stages of development. They have identified about 400 potential T Tauri stars in IC 2118, called the Witch Head Nebula. IC 2118 is a dusty cloud in the Orion constellation. "We are now in the process of doing the follow-up work to narrow this down to the candidates that we believe there is sufficient evidence to support that they are, indeed, T Tauri stars," Spuck said. "We traveled to Kitt Peak Observatory in January to image the field in H-alpha, and have completed visual inspection of each candidate as well. At this point, we are down to about 300 candidates, and eventually, through process of elimination, we will most likely narrow the list down to about 70 or less that we feel are likely T Tauri stars."

Students and teacher in front of a computer displaying a starry image
Spuck said this project is different than those where students made accidental discoveries. The current research is very intentional. "This is a case where we started into this project and we are pursuing and hunting specifically T Tauri candidates, or T Tauri stars," Spuck said. "I describe it to my kids as, we are the district attorney's office, and we're trying to convict these points of light in space of being T Tauri stars."

Image to left: Students Nick, Matt and Sandy analyze images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope with teacher Tim Spuck. Credit: Tim Spuck

Spuck has received numerous honors for his teaching methods. These include the Tandy Technology Scholars Award, the Pennsylvania Christa McAuliffe Fellowship, and the Keivin Burns Outstanding Science Teacher Award by the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh. He was selected to NASA's Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers in 2004. NEAT is a group of outstanding teachers from around the U.S. selected from applicants for the Educator Astronaut project. NEAT members attend workshops and seminars at NASA centers to help NASA make the connection between space exploration and the classroom. Workshops feature briefings about the Vision for Space Exploration, tours, members of NASA's astronaut corp, sessions for exchanging innovative lessons and teaching techniques.

Most recently, Spuck was honored with an Educator Achievement Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The nomination by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center cited his success in obtaining grants for astronomy education initiatives, and his work with the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Spuck is spreading his enthusiasm for astronomy not just to students, but to his community as well. He helped in the creation of the Oil Region Astronomical Society and has served as an officer and board member since its inception. The society has been awarded more than $200,000 in grants and other contributions for various astronomy- and education-related projects, including the construction of the Oil Region Astronomical Observatory facility.

Related Resources
+ Spitzer Space Telescope

+ Spitzer Science Center

+ NASA Education Web Site

+ Goddard Space Flight Center
Spuck said strengthening education in his community is a continuation of what he is doing in the classroom. "In school, you are interacting with young learners, but I think learners and young kids are more or less a reflection of the community that they're in," he said. "It's so very important to get out in to your community as educators and bring opportunities to parents and grandparents of kids in your school. Providing those learning opportunities for your community only enhances what your kids are going to be willing to do in your classes. They need to see people in their community taking part in these kinds of activities."

Through education outreach components to all of its missions, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. It is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on engaging and retaining students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines critical to NASA's future engineering, scientific and technical missions.


Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services