Thursday, October 21, 2010

NASA Invites Students to Study the Sun During Solar Week

Solar Week
Want to build a pinhole camera to look at an eclipse? Or learn more about how gigantic telescopes examine the sun? The place to go on the Web is from October 18-22. Twice a year, Solar Week provides a weeklong series of web-based educational activities for classrooms about our magnetic variable star, the sun, and its interactions with Earth and the solar system.

Each day of Solar Week offers a different set of lessons and games for students ranging from the upper elementary to high school level. The site covers everything from solar radiation to pursuing careers in science. For example, on Monday, after learning details about how the sun is a star just like the other ones in the sky, students can play a game to determine just where the sun lies in the Milky Way. Or on Thursday, they measure how fast a coronal mass ejection races from the sun.

Helping to answer the students’ questions on an online bulletin board will be three scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. who have been involved almost since the project began in 2000. Throughout the week, Heliophysics researchers Terry Kucera, Dawn Myers, and Holly Gilbert will be among some twenty scientists who will share their excitement about the dynamic star at the center of our solar system. “I think it’s great that the kids get direct interaction with the scientists,” says solar physicist Kucera, who is involved with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory.

Currently run by UC Berkeley, Solar Week was originated by David Alexander in 2000 in coordination with his public outreach work for the Yohkoh solar observatory. He began Solar Week as a means of reaching out to girls and encouraging them in the sciences – incorporating many female solar scientists as role models. The site incorporates only women scientists, but welcomes students of both sexes. The former Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum at UC Berkeley took over Solar Week in 2003 where it is now managed by Karin Hauck and funded through spring of 2011 by NASA’s Sun-Earth Day. Berkeley has continued the tradition of incorporating student interaction with leading scientists at the forefront of Sun-Earth research. “The part of the website I enjoy most is the interactive message board because it’s dynamic,” says Hauck. “You never know what’s going to pop up. Students can be very creative with their questions, and I always learning something new from the scientists’ answers.”

Since one of the goals of Solar Week is to encourage girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, the Goddard scientists often have to answer questions about their jobs specifically, such as how often they travel or whether their jobs are impacted by the current economy –- and, of course, hobbies like Gilbert’s tournament pool-playing and Myers’s work as a dance teacher come up as well.

“I’m always so grateful,” says Hauck, “that these incredibly busy scientists are willing, year after year, to take time out of their very busy schedules to answer the students’ questions.”

Solar Week is ideal for students studying the solar system, the stars, or astronomy in general. It's also for kids wondering what it's like being a scientist, and pondering possible career choices. For those who miss this week, the activities remain online all year around, but the scientists won’t be available again to answer questions online until next March


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