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How 'Bob' Became an Astronomy Class's Best Friend
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

A cluster of stars

James' semester-long course focuses on a Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 6397, a cluster of stars more than 8,000 light-years away from Earth. Image Credit: NASA

Ask students of C. Renee James' "Stars and Galaxies" course at Sam Houston State University what they'll remember most from the introductory astronomy class, and you might get a common refrain: "Bob."

The class clown or whiz-kid know-it-all he is not. Rather, Bob is the name affectionately given to the single Hubble Space Telescope, or HST, image that serves as the centerpiece for the entire semester-long class for non-science majors.

That same sort of creativity and simplicity is common in James' efforts to educate students and the public about astronomy. Those efforts have brought awards and recognition to James in recent years, including top honors in the NASA-sponsored Top Stars contest.

Conducted by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in cooperation with the Space Telescope Science Institute, the contest recognized as "Top Stars" those educators documenting exemplary use of Hubble in science, technology, engineering or mathematics education.

The top-10 "Top Stars" entries were crowned "Gold Stars," including James' entry, "The Life and Death of Bob (a.k.a. NGC 6397) in an Introductory College-Level Astronomy Course," which describes how the physics professor uses Hubble images throughout her course.

"HST has the most amazing and accessible and publicized photos, and so many of them are positively jaw-dropping," James said. "I couldn't think of a better place to start hunting for images that my students would really 'ooh' and 'aah' over."

James begins the course by encouraging students to ask questions about "Bob," an image that shows a cluster of stars more than 8,000 light-years from Earth, and then having them work together to find the answers. She's a believer in inquiry-based and collaborative learning.

C. Renee James

C. Renee James' entry in the Hubble Top Stars contest was awarded a "Gold Star." Image Credit: Dan Stillman/IGES

"Everyone's a natural-born scientist, but somewhere along the way, people become convinced that asking questions is a massive inconvenience to others, so their natural curiosity about the world is stomped out," James said. "Unless students are challenged every step of the way to assimilate the information they've just been given, think about it, tackle a new situation that uses what they've just heard or seen, they won't really learn it."

Questions also play an important role in James' new book, "Seven Wonders of the Universe That You Probably Took For Granted." Each of the book's seven chapters -- "Night," "Light," "Stuff," "Gravity," "Time," "Home" and "Wonder" -- is driven by a child's seemingly simple question.

James finds that there isn't necessarily a huge difference between explaining science to a first-grader versus a college student.

"I can do the exact same light [demonstration] ... and have them arrive at the same answers and have the same misconceptions. The only major difference is the vocabulary that I use," James said. "The big difference is that you can add layers of sophistication with older students."

After having focused on research and teaching for many years, James more recently has found a niche in communicating science to broad audiences.

"Communicating science for me is simply what I love doing, whether it's in a classroom, in writing, chatting with my family or neighbors," said James, who won an American Astronomical Society writing award in 2008 for "Solar Forecast: Storm Ahead," an article appearing in the July 2007 issue of Sky and Telescope. "I just wish that people could see the wonders that are all around them."

Related Resources:
> Top Stars   →
> Hubble Space Telescope   →

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies