Navajo-Hopi Nations,Flagstaff & Winslow News
Sat, Oct. 31

Astronomy outreach program targets Navajo and Hopi Schools

Scientists and educators agree that science is a major part of our lives today; and, therefore, a good science education is important for everyone. Educators have been working to give children an understanding of science, but in recent years scientists have come to realize that they too have something useful to contribute to the kindergarten through 12th-grade classroom. Astronomers have an advantage because the beautiful night sky elicits a natural interest in astronomy for most kids and adults.

Located in northern Arizona adjacent to the Navajo and Hopi nations, Lowell Observatory is optimally situated to share the excitement of astronomy with Navajo and Hopi schools. Thus, in the summer of 1996 we initiated an astronomy outreach program, which is now coming to the end of its eighth year. Through this program, we work with fifth- through eighth-grade teachers to help Navajo and Hopi students become excited about astronomy in particular and, more generally, in science and education.

Lowell outreach program

Our program pairs astronomers and teachers, and five astronomers are participating this year. Each astronomer works with one teacher for one year, a different teacher at a different school each year. Throughout the year, we make numerous visits to our teacher’s class and lead discussions linked with hands-on astronomy activities.

We pull material from our own research and that of our colleagues into the classroom activities. For example, when we do activities on comets, we show pictures of Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp obtained for research purposes by Lowell staff. The connection with an active research observatory adds an air of excitement—the pictures we show may even have been obtained just a few nights before. In one case, one of our teachers participated in observations with his astronomer, helping to remotely operate a telescope in Hawaii from Flagstaff.

Lowell Observatory’s program focuses on students in grades five through eight. This age range is a transition period between young children’s inherent curiosity about the world and high school students’ often negative attitude towards science. During this stage, girls’ and minorities’ performances in the sciences typically change dramatically for the worse, and it is during this critical period that one can potentially have the greatest impact on their attitudes towards science and subsequent career options.

Each of our classroom visits centers around an astronomy activity. These activities are hands-on, fun and provide insight into an astronomical or scientific principle. Some examples are making model comets out of dry ice and other materials, watching them “age” and darken in the classroom; building scale models of the solar system, in classrooms and outside on playgrounds; learning how the phases of the moon appear, using balls and lamps; studying the wavelengths of light, using either prisms or diffraction gratings; learning about human space travel by building a model of a lunar colony; and many more.

One of the fun things astronomers get to do is to hold a “star party.” We hold one for each of our classes each year. We set up one or more telescopes and throughout the evening point at interesting objects in the sky. Depending on the time of year and the weather, we could look at the moon, Jupiter, Saturn, galaxies or other deep sky objects.

The students’ families are invited to this party. We often have parents lining up to take “just one more look at Saturn!” This is a fun way to involve parents and the community in the students’ education.

Another highlight of the program is the yearly visit to Lowell Observatory. The teacher and class visit Lowell’s Steele Visitor Center and then spend the night observing at our astronomical research facility at Anderson Mesa. We schedule the two larger telescopes here for the students’ use—an opportunity that is unique to this program. Here the students can use the 42-inch and 72-inch telescopes to take pictures of galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, and planets.

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