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Black Holes to Blackboards: Building Universes in the Classroom

Jeffrey F. Lockwood
Tucson Unified School District

Our national education standards ask all science teachers to teach our students using an inquiry-based approach, allowing them to understand the nature of science by doing it. Each of the programs I describe here satisfies not only those standards but also the curiosity of our students as they travel into the science world as neophyte scientists, struggling with the evidence, moving steadily towards a real understanding of science and the process of discovery.

Buying the Moon

A gentleman walked into my classroom last spring and offered me a 150 kilometer square section of the Moon. That’s about 5.4 million acres, and with an asking price of $500, it’s quite a bargain at 108 acres per cent. But instead of delivering a title and map for my 500 bucks, George French, president of Space Explorers, Inc., offered real scientific data to analyze from the Lunar Orbiter satellite. George has a license from NASA to make Lunar Orbiter data available to our nations’ classrooms. Called Project Moonlink (, the program has students download spectroscopic data from a website, use those data to analyze the composition of “their” portion of lunar surface, and then compare their results with those of the eight groups working on surrounding squares.

A Hands-On Universe

Two programs exist which provide CCD images of astronomical objects requested by students via email. The Hands-On Universe (HOU) project has a string of automated telescopes to grab requested images and a student-friendly image-processing software package to analyze those images. Although many of the images are used for teacher-driven activities, students do have the opportunity to work with scientists on original research projects. In the HOU Asteroid Search, students use images from the Berkeley Cosmology Project to look for very faint asteroids.

Telescopes in the Classroom

Another HOU-type project is Telescopes in Education (TIE). In this NASA-sponsored program, K-12 students and their teachers can remotely operate a 24-inch, research-grade telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory (see “Astronomy in the Classroom: The Telescopes in Education Program at Mount Wilson Observatory,” May/June 1998, p. 22).

Lightcurves 101

Variable-star studies are now possible for high school students. TIE can be linked easily with the new curriculum package just released by The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) that’s called Hands-On Astrophysics (HOA). The package provides teachers with excellent text materials, data sets, and a videotape which describes how to observe variable stars in the nighttime sky. Also included is a terrific software program called VSTAR which displays the archived data of hundreds of program stars and allows students to include their own data points and to calculate periods and other characteristics of stellar lightcurves. The study of variable stars in the classroom is particularly rewarding since student data can be sent to AAVSO for inclusion in the international variable star database. HOA can be purchased through the ASP catalog for $199.95 ($149.95 for AAVSO members). For more information on variable stars and how to join AAVSO contact

Learning by Doing

Project RBSE (The Use of Astronomy in Research Based Science Education) is an NSF sponsored program operated by Suzanne Jacoby, Don McCarthy, and me in conjunction with the National Optical Astronomy Observatories. The program introduces science teachers to three astronomy research areas during a four-week summer institute. The primary goal is to have teachers experience astronomy research and then to bring the research data into their classrooms via the internet. Participating teachers spend six nights at Kitt Peak National Observatory obtaining data for their classroom projects on three research-grade telescopes. They also learn how to process their data, build a solar telescope to take home to their classrooms, and learn background information from astronomers in each of the three research areas. Teachers are also paired with mentor scientists to assist them during the school year. For more information and an application form see the RBSE website at

Observing is Only Part of the Fun

In all of these programs, students work with real astronomical images and real data. This makes a huge difference in motivating students to learn astronomy and successfully complete a research project. Processing images on a computer using a student-friendly program like NIH Image also adds to the excitement of doing research and models what scientists actually do. As a final step, regardless of the project, students need to publish their results. One way is to publish electronically. John Swang, who teaches at Mandeville Middle School in Mandeville, Louisiana, has created a National Student Research Center. Hundreds of schools engage in research projects of varying degrees of difficulty, collaborate via email, and then publish their results in Swang’s electronic research journal. For information on the NSRC network, send a message to

JEFFREY F. LOCKWOOD is the Secondary Science Specialist in the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District. After 27 years of teaching physics and astronomy at Sahuaro High School in Tucson, he is now in charge of curriculum, instruction, and professional development for eleven high schools. His email address is