Teachers Honored as "Top Stars"
Screenshot of the Starry Critters Web site

The Starry Critters Web site uses colorful imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope to help children, their parents and educators explore the universe together. Image Credit: NASA

Selected for his educational Web site StarryCritters.com, John Williams of Golden, Colo., is the latest to be recognized as a "Top Star" in a new NASA-sponsored contest. Top Stars invites U.S. formal (K-12 and college) and informal educators to submit their best examples of using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in science, technology, engineering or mathematics education.

In August, Andrew Fraknoi of San Francisco, Calif., and Sheree' Kearns of Jacksonville, Fla., were the first to be selected as Top Stars.

The Top Stars contest continues through January 2010. It is conducted by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in cooperation with the Space Telescope Science Institute. Submissions are accepted from individuals and from teams of up to four members. Entries may include any combination of text, graphics, video and photos.

StarryCritters.com is designed to help children, their parents and educators explore the universe together. The Web site uses a blog format to feature colorful imagery from Hubble and other spacecraft. Users can manipulate images with zoom and pan controls. Children are encouraged to use their imagination to look for patterns in the star clusters, nebulas and galaxies that are pictured. Each image is accompanied by a detailed explanation.

Williams says he got the idea for StarryCritters.com while making a presentation at a nature center. He says the children in the audience were captivated by Hubble images.

"They saw patterns and shapes, and it struck me that the imagery really lends itself for releasing imaginations," Williams said. "Since children seem to respond to more interactive presentations, Starry Critters became a vehicle for that engagement."

Williams has served as a NASA Solar System Ambassador since 2005. Sponsored by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Solar System Ambassadors program oversees about 500 volunteers nationwide who help spread the word about space exploration, including recent discoveries and future missions, by organizing and attending community events.

Andrew Fraknoi

Andrew Fraknoi earned Top Stars honors for his activity designed to introduce undergraduate students to the large repository of Hubble images available. Image Credit: NASA

Fraknoi, chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., earned Top Stars honors for his activity in which undergraduate students pretend to be travel agents. They use Hubble images to plan a honeymoon to 10 "visually and astronomically interesting places." The activity familiarizes students with "the amazing repository of Hubble images, to get them to think about what it would be like to visit the objects ... and see some of them up close, and to help them see the Hubble images in context," according to a description provided by Fraknoi.

"I got the idea for this activity when students, toward the end of the introductory class, complained that there were so many beautiful pictures and strange objects discussed in my class that it was hard to sort them all out," said Fraknoi, who uses the activity in his Astronomy for Poets class. "So the activity uses the beauty of the Hubble images to help them sort through their textbook, their class notes, and the well-organized Hubble image gallery and find those images that are the most meaningful to them."

Fraknoi has authored numerous books and articles about astronomy and astronomy education. He is a frequent guest on radio and TV programs to translate astronomy news for a lay audience. He was named the 2007 California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Sheree' Kearns, a senior flight director and facilities manager at the Kirby Smith Middle School Challenger Learning Center in Jacksonville, Fla., authored two entries selected as Top Stars. They were the "Galactic Brain Buster Game," a computer game that introduces high school students to astronomy and helps them distinguish between the different types of galaxies and stars, and the "Hubble Space Telescope Scavenger Hunt," an activity that challenges high school students to answer questions about Hubble by exploring articles, videos and photographs on the Hubble Web site.

"I have always believed the best way to remember something is to surround learning with fun activities that are minds-on and hands-on," Kearns said. "Games can ignite learning and challenge students to explore. So using the format of question-and-answer games like Galactic Brain Buster and search games like Hubble Space Telescope Scavenger Hunt is a natural extension of play and is a great avenue to promote retainable knowledge."

Student Worksheet for the Hubble Space Telescope Scavenger Hunt

Sheree' Kearns authored two selected Top Stars entries including the "Hubble Space Telescope Scavenger Hunt" activity that challenge high school students to explore articles, videos and photographs to learn more about Hubble. Image Credit: NASA

"These educators have provided stellar examples of how creative and innovative lessons built around the Hubble Space Telescope can engage and inspire young minds," said Bonnie McClain, NASA Hubble education plan co-lead.

Top Stars selections are featured in the Showcase section of the Top Stars Web site, which includes downloadable files for educators who wish to use the activities.

"One of the most important results of the Top Stars contest will be the sharing of exemplary educational activities with educators across the U.S. and worldwide," said Theresa Schwerin, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies associate director for education. "The Top Stars Web site will provide educators with access to the materials needed to conduct the activities in the classroom or elsewhere."

Educators whose entries are selected as Top Stars receive the following recognition and awards:
  • A high-quality photo print (48" x 24") of a Hubble image
  • An invitation to attend via teleconference a special briefing by a Hubble scientist or engineer
  • Recognition as Top Stars on NASA Web sites.
The top-10 Top Stars will be recognized as "Gold Stars" and will receive the following in addition to the Top Stars prizes:
  • An official letter of commendation from NASA
  • An invitation to present their entry to other educators nationwide using the NASA Digital Learning Network
  • A pair of IMAX movie tickets that can be used to see "Hubble 3D"
  • A "Hubble 3D" movie poster for classroom display.
In addition, an article on NASA's Web site will feature educators selected as Gold Stars.

Top Stars will be selected periodically during the 2009-2010 school year according to the following schedule:

Entries submitted by           Awards announced
Nov. 30, 2009                      Dec. 18, 2009
Jan. 2, 2010                        Jan. 28, 2010

Gold Stars will be selected at the end of the full contest period, in late January 2010.

Educators, including those who have already submitted entries, are allowed and encouraged to revise, improve and re-submit their entries up to the final deadline of Jan. 2, 2010.

For more information, including submission guidelines, please visit http://topstars.strategies.org.

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies