Astronomy for Middle School Girls (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 03 Nov 2005

Astronomy for Middle School Girls

I presented an astronomy program for a group of middle school girls -- and survived!

The American Association of University Women runs a program with some of the local high schools to encourage girls to study science, math and engineering. I've volunteered at the star party at their "Tech Trek" summer camp at Stanford quite a few times; the girls at the camp are always energetic, smart and enthusiastic.

Last summer I asked the camp organizers whether they did any programs during the school year. Before I knew it, I was (gulp) signed up to run one!

AAUW's format: the girls rotate among four different "stations", spending about fifteen minutes at each station. That wasn't long enough to do any real problem solving or teach them any mathematical techniques, so I had to stick to fairly simple concepts while trying to give them a taste of several different aspects of astronomy.

Then the school played a dirty trick on us, and told us when we showed up at dawn-thirty that most of the girls were having an important test (having something to do with state standards) that day and so we'd only get ten girls instead of 25. What, do they not plan the standards tests any earlier than the day they give them? It seemed rather rude of the school to spring this on a group of volunteers who have to show up early in the morning for a program that's been planned for months.

The stations:

Telescopes: I showed them several different types of telescopes, and explain the difference between reflectors and refractors and what each is good for. My little Coulter CT-100 came in handy since it's so open that it's easy to see the arrangement of the mirrors. For the refractor, I used an 80mm f/7 because it's easy to transport and set up (though something on an equatorial mount would have been nice). Then I had my cheapie homebuilt 6-inch f/4 Dobsonian so that they could play with a dob mount and see how it was built (and to show that telescopes don't have to be expensive). I had hoped to show the sun through the 80f7, but the sky didn't cooperate (no big surprise, in November). I also had a collection of eyepieces and binocular parts for them to disassemble and play with. Some girls were a lot more willing to play with things than others; several didn't seem to want to look or touch until specifically instructed "Stand there, look there, push there".

Mars: With Mars just past closest approach, of course there had to be a Mars station. I had them make Mars icosohedron globes and brought a selection of "Mars rocks" (mostly red oxidized basalt). They liked learning that Mars is red because it's rusty, but some of them had trouble assembling the icosohedrons.

Moon: A 100W light bulb and some ping-pong balls created a model of why the moon goes through phases, and what the difference is between phases and an eclipse. (I think the adult AAUW helpers may have learned as much from this exercise as the girls.) Moon maps and displays and "moon rocks" (basalt) rounded out the station.

Spectra and the Doppler Shift: A few weeks ago I made a "Doppler ball" to illustrate the Doppler effect with sound. Split a whiffle ball in half (the hard part here is finding one: toy stores and Target only sell them in quantity, but I found a 2-pack at a dollar store). Then install a buzzer (from Radio Shack) and a 9-volt battery inside the ball (and a switch, plug, or some other way to turn it on). Tie a string to the ball and whirl it around your head, or have people toss it back and forth, and listen to the frequency change according to whether the ball is coming or going. It's very effective!

In addition, we had diffraction gratings (from Edmund Scientific; there doesn't seem to be any place in the bay area where you can just walk in and buy consumer-quality diffraction gratings) and prisms, and incandescent lamp and fluorescent (mercury vapor) lamps to show the difference between a line spectrum and a continuous one. One of the other women got the idea to burn calcium citrate tablets to show a calcium line, but I didn't get a chance to see how that worked. Another woman brought a wonderful bell: she's in a bell-ringing choir, and showed how you can demonstrate the Doppler effect and also, by immersing a low-frequency bell in water, illustrate sine waves very effectively. Cool stuff!

(I had tried out the Doppler ball and the gratings on my Toastmasters group a few weeks earlier, and it worked well there too. The ball swinging, one spectrum, and some discussion of why spectra are important and what they can tell us about the universe, all just barely fit in a seven-minute speech.)

Overall the day went well, considering that we started late and had a much smaller group than we expected. The smaller group meant that we got more chance to talk and explain things and encourage them to play around. The evaluations were all fairly positive, there weren't any stations that seemed unpopular or just didn't work, and lots of them said they liked all the activities. (I was too busy running the telescope station to get a chance to peek in on any of the others, alas.)

I'd like to get a chance to lead a group of girls in a project with more depth, where they actually have to solve a problem, build something, or calculate something. That would require a few hours rather than fifteen minutes. But the "several small stations" approach is great for someone inexperienced in leading school programs, like me, or when you're not familiar with the girls and their interests and capabilities. It wasn't nearly as scary as I thought it would be, and was fun for all concerned.

[ 18:48 Nov 03, 2005    More education | permalink to this entry | ]

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