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States astronomy educational workshops help launch students interest in science and beyond
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Riverside Military Academy instructor James Myers, center, is taking part in a NASA funded workshop aimed at helping educators use astronomy to teach other subjects. The Georgia Department of Education partnered with Columbus State and Georgia Southern universities to formulate GEARS — Georgians Experience Astronomy Research.

Since we’re in the middle of a heat wave, it seems like an appropriate time to ask this question. Why is it hot in the summer and cold in the winter?

If you’re at a loss for an answer, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Riverside Military Academy instructor James Myers says that point was made abundantly clear in a video, "Our Private Universe," that he incorporated into a NASA-funded workshop for educators that he recently facilitated at the University of Georgia.

"It begins by asking a group of Harvard University graduates a few simple science questions that are covered in middle school science and throughout the high school science curriculum," Myers said.

"One of the questions is ‘What causes the seasons.’ Nearly all (participants) related the cause to the Earth’s varying distance from the sun rather than the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

"The point is that many well-educated people do not understand some of the basic facts of science."

One of the reasons why so many people know so little about astronomy is because it’s largely absent from public education. That is a travesty some say.

"Astronomy can be taught at an elementary level. My 5-year-old granddaughter told me about studying constellations in her pre-school," Myers said.

"Astronomy can also be taught at an advanced level with rigorous mathematics. A friend of mine who directs a planetarium in Kentucky said that all pre-schoolers are very interested in dinosaurs and astronomy.

"An interest in astronomy is native to most all people. A trained teacher can then use that interest in astronomy to teach lots of physics for sure, but also chemistry, history and biology."

This is why the Georgia Department of Education partnered with Columbus State and Georgia Southern universities to formulate GEARS — Georgians Experience Astronomy Research.

"We’re trying to inspire teachers to use some astronomical discoveries to teach physics and chemistry concepts," said Zodiac Webster, a Columbus State University professor who helped obtain the NASA grant to fund the program.

The goal of GEARS is to help teachers move beyond textbook-based lessons to data-based ones, which would help make the curriculum more interesting for students, organizers say.

"The workshop is designed to lead teachers in several activities they can incorporate in their classes to teach astronomy," Myers said.

In the five-day, 30-hour workshop, the teachers are taught a variety of low- and high-tech lessons.

For instance, in one lesson, they learned how to use a basketball, peppercorns, acorns and paper clips to build a scale model solar system.

While in another session, they used DS9 image processing software to "acquire astronomical images from the Chandra X-ray satellite.

"We’re giving the teachers a fire hose approach to astronomy," Webster said.

"We’re trying to introduce them to as many technological tools as possible so that they can bring the real data into their classrooms."

To help them along, the participants also were given lots of take-home goodies.

"The participants were given well over $200 worth of materials to be used in their classrooms," Myers said.

"This included several books, lots of posters, computer software and gas discharge tubes to show and study spectra.

"Nearly everything an astronomer does is based on the study of the spectrum of light from a distant body, so (the discharge tubes) are vital."

GEARS workshops aren’t just about providing participants with fancy tools. It’s also about showing them how to access information that’s been available right at their fingertips.

According to Kenneth Berry, a GEARS instructor and North Forsyth High School teacher, anyone with an Internet connection has access to the same program used by professional astronomers to analyze data and study the overall universe.

"Most science courses have a lab compontent that encourages analytical thinking and science processing skill development," Berry said.

"When the universe is your laboratory, how can we accomplish this component for students without telescopes and other very expensive equipment?

"A major emphasis in the course was teaching teachers how to implement free, downloadable software into their classroom as an introductory way to experience astronomy as an interactive lab science between what is observed and how modern theories have developed to explain the observations."

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