Citizen Science

STARS: Real world inquiry excels to new heights at Research Ranch

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The mobile observatory from the STARS project. This picture was taken by drone of the director standing in the brand new facility.
The mobile observatory from the STARS project. This picture was taken by drone of the director standing in the brand new facility.

Science, inquiry, project-based learning, and relevance take center stage in STARS.

At a time of such ecological uncertainty, when some of our greatest minds have given us 1000 years as a species until extinction, one thing is abundantly clear: the study of celestial bodies, near and far, has never been more important.  And while 1000 years may be a bit far off to even comprehend, it behooves us to broaden our understanding of our neighboring planets in stars in hopes that when the time comes for us to leave our terrestrial trappings behind, we’re ready.

This is exactly what educators at George West High School have been working on for the past two years with their innovative STARS (South Texas Astronomical Research for Students) program.

“It has widely been assumed that scientific research and especially astronomical research was an endeavor to be pursued at the university level, and even then primarily by graduate students, certainly not at the high school level.  STARS challenges that notion.”

-Kenneth Zeigler

Research Ranch Cultivates Learning

STARS is not limited to astronomy. At Research Ranch, tiny ranch by Texas standards of only 34 acres, introduces students to real research in the following fields of study:

  •   Astronomy
  •   Solar energy to electricity conversion
  •   Ecology
  •   Materials engineering
  •   New techniques in ranching (the solar ranch)

According to the report, in the first two years of this project all the areas above demonstrated tremendous progress in regards to research. Current efforts continue to focus the project primarily on astronomy, materials engineering, and solar energy.

A Converted Marching Band Trailer becomes a Mobile Astronomical Observatory

One of the most exciting developments of the past year was the STARS observatory telescope coming fully online to fully begin the program.  It’s housed in the Mobile Astronomical Observatory, an 8 by 16 foot, 30-year-old converted marching band trailer.  

This year saw the final steps of the transformation into a scientific research facility.  Even receiving a brand new coat of paint and its official logo as the school year began.  

Students of the science club get busy painting the mobile observatory’s exterior in the new color scheme.
Students of the science club get busy painting the mobile observatory’s exterior.

The mobile observatory is divided into a control room and telescope room section. Most of the student researcher’s time is spent in the control room which is climate controlled.

The primary instrument used this year with the telescope was the thermoelectrically cooled CCD camera that could be used to take timed exposures of the heavens as well as make measurements of star brightness at a variety of wavelengths. This opens the possibility of making measurements of color and surface temperature of stars or the shapes and rotational periods of asteroids. The student operators, CCD camera and main telescope are shown in the slideshow below.

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Rocketry Club Qualifies for National Competition

The observatory isn’t the only thing to be excited about.  An unexpected offshoot of the astronomy program has been a new rocketry program.  Interest in the mobile observatory inevitably led to an interest in all things space, and it led students to pursue the Team America Rocketry Challenge.  Two teams from George West High School participated in this nationwide competition.  The challenge was to build a rocket that would carry two raw hen eggs to an altitude of exactly 850 feet and return them to the ground undamaged in a flight time between 44 and 46 seconds.  This is a most difficult task and one of the two teams (Cloud 9) qualified for the national competition.

The Cloud Nine rocketry team preparing their rockets for competition in Washington, DC.
The Cloud 9 rocketry team of the STARS research project preparing their rockets for competition in Washington, DC.

Solar Voltaic Arrays Support Real World Agricultural Inquiry

The solar ranch is another reason to celebrate this program.  Junior Ryan Repka has been working on two different designs for photovoltaic arrays.  The first one is the semi-active array.  The first panel will be finished before the end of the school year and will be installed during the summer of 2016 with the entire photovoltaic array to be completed during the fall 2016 semester.  At that point, Ryan  will begin a semester long study as to the best ways to maximize efficiency, from panel positioning to water cooling of the panels.

Through repositioning of photovoltaic arrays as part of the STARS research project, an additional 15-20% solar power efficiency can be realized.While this project exceeds expectations for high school students, it continues to expand student learning opportunities.  

In terms of agricultural and ecological research, the project is just beginning to make progress. In fact, an intriguing future project is taking shape.  Not far from the observatory site and solar ranch, the first trees of a citrus orchard have been planted.  The observatory site is a bit north of the main citrus growing region of Texas. Being on a hill out of areas of cold sinking air help, but this area is subject to serious killing frosts about one year in four.  To combat this problem, the students and educators plan to develop what they are calling a microwave defroster.  This system could be used to prevent frost damage on citrus but would be even more useful on more sensitive winter vegetables such as lettuce. They plan to initiate a pilot project for this device no later than the winter of 2018.

It truly is an exciting time to be a student or a teacher participating in the STARS program at George West High School.  There’s something very powerful about teaching and learning while simultaneously working for a better future for all humans.

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Inquiry, Relevance, and Citizen Science: A Roadmap to Successful Science Projects

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When students tackle science hands on, they can save the world!

If inquiry is meaningful, real world practices improve student understanding.

Students research water quality with samples they collected.
Students research water quality with samples they collected. Photo from Linda Weber, Project Awardee.

Memorizing the periodic table, a formula to determine the circumference of an atom, or the genus of a frog can be important, but let’s face it… you’re looking at an uphill battle when you are staring down the barrel of sixty drooping eyelids trying to explain why it is important that the student retain this information.

There is ample evidence that students retain very little from lectures in science classes.  There is a reason for this – when you are given lists of equations, tables, or dozens of names to memorize it can be difficult to see where this makes an impact in the real world.

So how do we change this?

Simple.  We help students impact the real world using practical inquiry into local and global science.  Or better yet, take the classroom to the science! Whether students are contributing data to global honey bee research or graphing the skies, citizen science allows students to participate in global scientific inquiry. As explained here, integrating inquiry based science meaningfully in the real world is a tall order for any educator. In this post, we will share with you an example project and supporting resources to inspire this integration in your classroom.

How do educators integrate scientific inquiry and real world relevance?

The Water Quality Project:  A Map to Understanding was reported by Linda Weber of Natick High School in Natick, Massachusetts. The goal of this project at is to let students “do” science like real scientists by observing, questioning, and ultimately coming up with a solution to a problem that can be shared with the larger community.  In the short term, participation allows students to see and experience the process of scientific inquiry first hand, rather than having someone dictate it to them.  In the long term, students who participated would see how the decisions they were making now would impact their lives in the future. According to the National Science Teachers Association’s position statement:

“Scientific inquiry reflects how scientists come to understand the natural world, and it is at the heart of how students learn. From a very early age, children interact with their environment, ask questions, and seek ways to answer those questions. Understanding science content is significantly enhanced when ideas are anchored to inquiry experiences. “

What strategies can be used to increase the real world relevance of the inquiry process?

PBS' Poisoned Waters is available along with an accompanying teacher's guide at pbs.org.
PBS’ Poisoned Waters is available along with an accompanying teacher’s guide at pbs.org.

One of the long term goals of this project included helping students see how the decisions they make today influences their future.  This ambitious goal required teachers to frontload curriculum earlier in the year and to engage students with relevant narratives (like PBS’ Poisoned Waters) and a guest speaker assembly including local and regional water quality scientists.

All of this preparation helped students prepare for real world and hands on activities for the project. These included:

  • Helping out their community
    For the annual Charles River Watershed Association’s clean-up day, students and teachers removed a variety of trash, from traditional cigarette butts and paper to more unusual things like television sets. For the nearly 50 students that participated (on a school vacation weekend, mind you) the experience was insightful. Class discussions about and concern for their environment lingered into the following weeks in class. These shared experiences became the “reason” to investigate water quality in the community rather than the “just the wrap up activity” of the project.
  • Environmental Science and Robotics classes at collection sites test and launch robots, then collect water samples to be analyzed at the site and in class. Photo from Linda Weber, Project Awardee.
    Environmental Science and Robotics classes at collection sites test and launch robots, then collect water samples to be analyzed at the site and in class. Photo from Linda Weber, Project Awardee.

    Collecting local data
    After the students had returned to the area to collect water samples. They used collection robots they built during their classroom time to reach water samples they couldn’t normally get to.  Using technologies like wikis, blogs, and Google Maps they were able to share their results instantly with their classmates.

  • Contributing to global datasets
    The project also included research for the testing parameters of The World Monitoring Day Organization or World Water Monitoring DayThe Water Quality Project isn’t the only program in the United States doing this.  Many other schools (in over 24 countries) are participating in The World Water Monitoring Challenge.  It charges its members to educate and engage students and citizens in the protection of international water resources.
  • Presenting the results
    When all the research was said and done there was a “massive poster presentation” where every student was required to present his or her findings and share ideas for how to improve the water conditions in their community.

Why does it work?

When learning is meaningful, the impact is tangible.

When students have the opportunity to showcase their skills to a larger audience than their teachers or peers it helps to internalize the lessons they learn in the classroom.  This benefit accumulates when the students can see themselves using inquiry-based science to make a real difference in their communities.

Learn more about the resources used in Water Quality: A Roadmap to Understanding
Learn more about Citizen Science

Learn more about integrating Citizen Science in education