Monday, July 30, 2012

Finishing up at the ASP

I've been painfully bad at updating this blog.  At any one time, I'm thinking of three posts that I need to get in before my internship ends this week (!).  Keep checking  back within the week to hear about my most recent work-related happenings.

Currently I am trying to get everything in order before going to the ASP's annual meeting in Tucson, AZ.  The conference's theme is "Communicating Science" and I'll be presenting a poster and making contacts that will hopefully help me get a job post-graduation next May.  I'm really excited for all the lectures and poster sessions.  Just printed up some business cards, and I'm ready to mingle!

Let's Talk About Supenovae!

A couple of weeks ago, I worked at the NASA Summer Art Program at the YMCA in Berkeley, CA, facilitating some fun supernovae activities.  The afternoon started with an interesting ice breaker where students had to go around to different stations and try to figure out the answers to some common astronomy questions.  I was sitting near one of the stations that featured the question "What are sunspots? What do they represent? What causes them?" On the table was a styrofoam sun with a magnet and little staples that actually looked like sunspots.  It was really interesting to see these groups of 14-17 year-olds try to figure out the answers to these questions.  Some students took into account these magnetic models; some tried to figure out the answer by studying the question and some students were hesitant to write down any response to the question that wasn't a 100% right.  It reminded me that the curiosity it takes (and the courage to be wrong) is not something that comes naturally to a lot of students, especially at the high school age.  It reminded me a lot of myself.  It made me to be more involved in programs that really encourage kids that it's okay to be wrong when trying to understand a new concept; scientific understanding is not focused on getting the right answer on the first try, but rather working toward an answer that in the end makes sense to you.  And being wrong on the first try is something that all scientists have experienced.

After the introductory activity, Dr. Jeff Silverman from UC Berkeley gave a short lecture on supernovae.  It was awesome! Definitely one of the best lectures I've heard on the subject; very engaging and great for the audience level.  A theme throughout the summer has been "why can't scientists effectively communicate their science?" -- hearing a scientist so effectively talk about supernovae and his research to a high school class was pretty enlightening.

Then we were on to the fun stuff!  Vivian (also from the ASP) and I went through a couple of activities.  First, she brought along a large poster that went through the life cycle of stars, but sun-like and massive.  It was great seeing such an effective educator in her element.  Then we went on to do a kinesthetic life cycle of stars activity, where the kids mimic the core and outer envelope of stars and the gravitational and fusion pressures within the star, through balancing activities.  We go through each phase of the star from star-forming regions to protostar and so on and then to the death of star in both sun-like and massive stars.

We then went into an activity that mimics core collapse within massive stars using tennis and ping pong balls.  We ended with an activity that goes through all the elements that supernovae provide us!  At the end of the session, the students realize that we would only have stars and gas-planets --no diamond rings, no computers, and no humans!  

We left before the art portion, but they did a lot of cool splatter paint activities that embodied a lot of supernovae-like traits.

Here are some photos from the event:


^^ the students acting out a supernova explosion!  Note my excitement on the side :)

^^ an activity that used tennis and ping pong balls to mimic why more massive and less massive particles react different during a supernova.  In a SN, the core is going to contract and become EXTREMELY dense.  The core and the outer layers of the star are going to fall inwards; once the neutrons (formed from the intense packing of protons and electrons at the center of the star) are packed as tightly as they can, the core collapse stops and the material falling inward will "bounce" outwards.  the different layers of a stars during a SN in different ways depending on their mass.  By bouncing a ping pong ball on top of a tennis ball onto the ground, you can see that the tennis ball is going to bounce less (b/c gravity is pulling on it more), while the ping pong ball is going to shoot up, in a similar fashion to less massive particles.  This is a simplified model, but shows how gravity is important in a SN and how different particles are going to react differently throughout this stellar process.

 ^^ what do SN give us activity?  I'll ruin the punch line: US!  We wouldn't be alive without supernovae!  The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones -- all thanks to the deaths of super massive stars!

Monday, July 16, 2012

SETIcon II: Where science and imagination meet!

Last month I worked at the SETI Institute’s SETICon II: where science and imagination meet! It was a fun convention hosted by the SETI Institute that brought together a lot of interesting people.  I helped out at the Lick Observatory Booth and presented an activity and some iPad apps on exoplanets and how to find them.  The activity was very easy to understand and included a model demonstration of the wobble method (Doppler spectrocscopy) and the transit method.

Here’s  a demonstration video by the wonderful Suzy Gurton.  It's titled "How Do We Find Planets?" and can be find on the Night Sky Network list of activities:

Throughout the day, I also showed off the Kepler and Exoplanets apps.  I ended up chatting with Dr. Frank Drake of the famous Drake equation (!), who was presenting at one of the panels later on at the convention.  It was definitely a starstruck moment (pun intended).  I remember attending an astronomy class at a college I visited during high school, and during that lecture we went over the Drake equation ( and the notion of intelligent life in our Universe.  It was pretty full circle when I showed him and his wife the apps, and had a discussion about how I got into astronomy.  Both lovely people, and I had a great time talking it up with them.  I’ve included some photos below:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

NASA Summer Art Program

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at the Downtown Berkeley YMCA at the PG&E Teen Center observing a session of the NASA Summer Art Program.  Every Tuesday this summer, around 25 high school students spend the afternoon learning about space and the cosmos combined with interesting art projects.  While I was just observing this past session, I’ll be running some activity sessions for the next two workshops.  Next week’s topic is supernovae, so it’s going to be a really “super” time haha.  Excited to get involved in a new outreach activity!