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This Legacy journal article was published in Volume 7, June 1998, and has not been updated since publication. Please use the search facility above to find regularly-updated information about this topic elsewhere on the HEASARC site.
Bringing High-Energy Astronomy to the World:
Education and Public Outreach at the HEASARC

L. Whitlock (HEASARC)


  1. Introduction

    In recent years, NASA's Office of Space Science (OSS) has shown a genuine and sustained commitment to participating in the efforts to reform mathematics, science and technology education at the K-12 level. The clear goal is to elevate the general scientific and technical understanding of children and the general public. OSS has encouraged the NASA research community to join in this effort, in the belief that the talents of the individuals at the forefront of developing and interpreting NASA mission-based space science are an invaluable asset to this effort. The HEASARC quickly chose to accept this challenge, and organized an all-volunteer Education and Public Outreach group in March 1996. This group has been extremely productive since its inception, creating and distributing numerous teacher and public resources, presenting workshops to both the formal and informal education communities, and developing sustainable partnerships with education associations such as the National Science Teachers Association and the National Teacher Training Institute. These efforts will be described in detail below.

  2. Using the Web

    As a major part of the Education/Outreach efforts at the HEASARC, we have developed two World Wide Web sites for astronomy and space science. Imagine the Universe!, previously known as the High-Energy Astrophysics Learning Center, is our primary site (http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/). It is devoted to explaining how scientists probe the structure and evolution of our Universe; it discusses all of the tools which scientists bring to bear for understanding how objects -- such as neutron stars, quasars, and active galaxies -- came into being, how they evolve, and what, in the end, will become of them. At present, the information is for ages 14 and up. The relationship of the material to the National Science and Mathematics Standards is shown on each page of the "Science" sections. Also included is a "Teacher's Corner" which contains lesson plans for teaching everything from pre-algebra to advanced chemistry using astronomy data and astronomical concepts. These lesson plans have been developed for us by teachers and tested in their classrooms. Our second major site, the award-winning StarChild (http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/), contains information and activities about general astronomy and space exploration geared for ages 4-14. All of the materials in this site were written for us by teachers.

    In the past 6 months, we have been accessed by schools in all 50 US states and by 99 different countries. As of March 1998, 14% of the total accesses to Imagine the Universe! and 19% of the accesses to StarChild are from educational institution extensions. This fraction is growing steadily each month. The non-developer monthly access graph is shown below. Clearly present are two significant trends: 1.) usage of the sites is growing at an exciting rate and 2.) usage by schools is a significant part of our overall user community.

    Figure 1: Number of Accesses per Month

  3. Beyond the Web

    3.1 Development of Printed and Other Materials

    In the Fall of 1997, we created the first in a series of posters and related activity booklets for distribution to the education community. One set was targeted for grades K-8; a second set was targeted for grades 9-12. The topic chosen was the Life Cycles of Stars. These materials were developed as a result of a survey by an independent assessment of our Web materials. Educators said that the one thing they would like to see to accompany our Web materials were printed materials that could be used in the classroom. Educators were brought in to work with us on creating and testing the materials in a classroom setting. All of the materials were related to National Mathematics and Science Standards. They have proven to be enormously popular and we are now poised to begin the development of the second sets, which will be about Black Holes. Our goal is to produce new sets once a year.

    In order to provide our Web materials to schools and educators with no or limited access to the Internet, we also captured our websites on a CD-ROM which was distributed to educators. We produced and distributed 12,000 copies of our first CD. We have just released the second version, which captures all of the changes and developments which have occurred in the sites during the past 13 months. A new CD will be produced each year so that those who receive the materials that way can "keep up" with those who have Internet access. Requests for copies of the latest CD should be sent to ideas@heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov.

    3.2 Workshops and Conferences

    During the past 6 months, we have presented a 1-hour workshop at various national, state, and local teachers' meetings. It proved to be well-received and an excellent way to foster relationships within both the formal and informal the education communities. We intend to develop a new workshop each year which we can present at the many meetings we support (such as the National and Regional NSTA meetings, the California and Virginia State Science Teachers meetings, the National NCTM meeting, the National Science and Technology Symposium, NEWMAST, and NTTI workshops). These workshops have proven to be a very effective vehicle not only to get our materials into the hands of teachers, but also to hear from teachers what they like/dislike, need/want, can use/not use.

    We have also been exhibiting at conferences since December 1996 in order to interact directly with even larger groups of educators from all over the world, not only to let them know about our efforts, but to get response back from them. In the past 14 months, we have attended 19 meetings, interacting with over 64,000 formal and informal educators.

    3.3 Independent Evaluation and Assessment

    During the past year, we engaged SLi, a nationally recognized educational resources evaluation company, to perform an independent evaluation and assessment of our websites and CD-ROM. The results have proven instrumental in changes and new developments in our programs. SLi will continue to perform these reviews of all our materials on a periodic basis.

  4. Final Note

    It is firmly believed that high-energy astronomy can and should be taught in the pre-college classroom. It has not been taught previously only because the field is so young (achieving a significant level only in the 1970s) and education materials have been scarce. However, what we learn about our Universe at these energies is unique, exciting, and will become more and more commonplace in the 21st century. We need only take the time to explain our subject, both to the education community and to the general public, in order for them to get as excited about it as we are. Given this, one of our guiding principles has been a strict requirement for educator involvement in our efforts. This was, and remains, crucial in assuring that the product we generate is useful in the classroom as well as accessible for the general public. It is often quite difficult for professional scientists to discern if they are communicating effectively with the general public about their scientific pursuits. Thus, we have put together a network of educators to provide us with regular feedback about our materials. These educators come from Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Maine, and Vermont; they represent a broad range not just geographically, but also in computer resources and literacy. They provide us with invaluable advice in the development of our materials.


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