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Using Hubble to Fuse Exploration and Learning
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.

John Williams

John Williams submitted two entries that were awarded a "Gold Star" in the Hubble Top Stars contest. Image Credit: Dawn Williams

It was a good thing that John Williams' father did not answer every one of his son's questions when he was a kid. Interested in the puzzles of nature that surrounded him in eastern Kansas, Williams' insatiable curiosity led him to explore and find answers for himself.

Williams, who says that the sky held "a special interest" for him, describes with excitement his experience of observing stars and planets through a telescope for the first time: "This was much better than TV," he says.

Led by his passion in astronomy and his love of sharing knowledge through writing, Williams eventually pursued science writing at the University of Kansas' School of Journalism and Mass Communications. "I thought I could be the next Carl Sagan or Arthur C. Clarke," he says.

Like these luminaries, Williams found a way to educate others about space science in fun and engaging ways while preserving that component of learning that drove him to science in the first place: exploration. As his winning entries to the Top Stars contest illustrate, Williams has fused exploration and learning through the use of social media tools and the Internet.

Conducted by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in cooperation with the Space Telescope Science Institute, the NASA-sponsored Top Stars contest recognizes U.S. educators making exemplary use of the Hubble Space Telescope in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education. The top ten entries are awarded a Gold Star.

Williams is the owner and lead developer of Terra Zoom, a Web design and development firm specializing in Web mapping and image manipulation using the Zoomify program. He received a Gold Star for his two entries: the Starry Critters website and the "Hubble Star Card Game."

Starry Critters asks the simple question: "What do you see in the night sky?" Colorful and impressive images from Hubble and other telescopes take center stage as students manipulate them to focus on what the images, like the letter "X" in the Boomerang Nebula, suggest to them.

"Like clouds on a summer day, star clouds turn into dragons, cat eyes, fish and other animals with a little imagination," wrote Williams in the Top Stars entry. The website aims at imbuing excitement in children before they learn the true stories of the images, which can be explained by teachers and parents from the background information provided.

The "Hubble Star Card Game" does something similar by engaging students and teachers in a fun, interactive way to learn about the universe. "The images on the cards motivate and engage students to read while developing strategies in learning about objects in space," the website states. The set of 60 cards is divided by planets, planetary nebulae, supernova remnants, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies. Each card provides basic information, including location and distance from Earth.

Based on this information, students can play traditional card games such as "war" or "go fish." Williams has found that individual or competitive games offer opportunities for further learning as students are driven to ask questions, such as those about distances in space and the concept of a light-year. "While playing the game with students, I found that given a little instruction, students can play and learn with minimal interaction," he explains.

According to Williams, a critical component in both of these experiences is their interactive nature. At the Starry Critters website, for example, users are encouraged to post messages about what they see in each image. "We are social creatures," Williams explains, "so sharing experiences and discoveries ties into that nature."

Technology, in the form of the Internet and social media that help capture this interaction and share it with millions, is an important tool in this endeavor. Both products take advantage of the Internet and social media to encourage the kind of curiosity and exploration that shaped Williams as he was growing up and that affects him still.

A certified instructor of taekwondo who has written articles for publications such as Earth and the Smithsonian's Air & Space Magazine, Williams thinks everyone can engage in exploration. "Anytime we encourage people to explore their world," he says, "I think we engage a fundamental part of our nature."

Related Resources:
› Top Stars   →
› Hubble Space Telescope   →
› Starry Critters   →
› Hubble Star Cards   →
› Top Stars Winners
› Meet the Next Space Science Explorers

Laura Delgado López: Institute for Global Environmental Strategies