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Using Hubble to Engage Students in Scientific Inquiry
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.

As far back as his memory goes, Dan Lyons, Ph.D., a physics and astronomy education researcher, recalls an insatiable love affair with science: "From the time I was three years old, I would ask question after question about science, and my Dad would answer as best he could."

The future postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago was naturally curious about chemistry, biology, physics and astrophysics -- about the relationship between atoms and molecules, between elements and compounds, and about chemical reactions versus nuclear reactions.

Tim Slater, Stephanie Slater and Dan Lyons

The entry created by Tim Slater, Stephanie Slater and Dan Lyons for the Hubble Top Stars contest earned a "Gold Star" award. Image Credit: Kelly Manhart / University of Wyoming

Lyons' voracious appetite for science eventually led to questions about how living things are made up of cells, about DNA and the evolution of species, and about the relationship between Earth and the greater solar system.

Ultimately, his explorations steered him to the Milky Way Galaxy and the entire universe beyond. It was his own fascination with science that first motivated Lyons to develop an activity aimed at students.

Together with coauthors, Stephanie J. Slater, Ph.D., Director of Research at the Center for Astronomy and Physics Education Research, and Timothy F. Slater, Ph.D., Endowed Professor of Science Education at the University of Wyoming, the three teamed up to create a program using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

"We wanted to develop a curriculum for students that would allow them to consider how the Hubble telescope impacts our conception of the universe," says Tim Slater.

The trio's big idea, "Using HST to Scaffold Student-driven Scientific Inquiry," was selected as a winner in this year's NASA-sponsored Top Stars contest.

The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies conducts the contest to recognize educators who document exemplary use of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in science, technology, engineering or mathematics education.

"The Hubble Deep Field activity was designed first and foremost to engage students in scientific inquiry in astronomy. It was designed so that students with very little background in galaxies could participate in the activity," Slater explains.

It seemed reasonable to the team of astronomy curriculum developers to foster an educational program around the Hubble's striking images.

"The Hubble Deep Field is one of the most iconic images in astronomy for our generation," says Slater.

The three self-described "science fiction fans" agree images from childhood served as a gateway to future careers in science.

"Above all, somehow it must convey to students that science truly is a creative enterprise," Lyons adds.

One of the major successes of their program is that undergraduate students engage in authentic inquiry that they design themselves. Students are guided through four different inquiry experiences using Hubble Space Telescope data and then are given more and more responsibility as the exercise progresses.

The Hubble Deep Field program shows a variety of objects in the very distant universe that can be systematically and scientifically counted, organized and classified.

For example, some galaxies are orange-red in color, while others are white or blue. After studying Hubble images, students are asked questions such as: What is the most common color of galaxy in the image? How did you determine this?

Lyons believes that the most famous Hubble Space Telescope images have succeeded in sparking this generation's imagination the way images from the Apollo space missions once did with previous generations.

"Landing people on the moon is, in my mind, still a bit greater (as) an accomplishment. However, images such as the Hubble Deep and Ultra Deep Fields give us astounding tangible evidence as to just how prolific galaxies are in the universe."

Related Resources:
› Top Stars   →
› Hubble Space Telescope   →
› Top Stars Winners

Karen Nozik: Institute for Global Environmental Strategies