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Astronomers help area children reach for the stars with the help of a NASA grant

Oct. 17, 2006
By Mary Reed

If you ask Mangala Sharma what makes astronomy so interesting to her, you can watch as her eyes brighten and a smile stretches across her face. "I am curious about the whole universe," says the Ohio University research assistant professor of physics and astronomy. "I think this is what makes us human -- our curiosity. I think a day is wasted if I didn't learn something new."

Mangala Sharma, photos by Attila HorvathBy day, Sharma shares her enthusiasm for astronomy with her students at Ohio University, and then she moonlights (so to speak) by teaching schoolchildren and the public in southeast Ohio about the wonders of the universe. The recipients of a NASA IDEAS grant, Sharma and her colleagues from Ohio University's Astrophysical Institute and amateur astronomers of the Southeast Ohio Astronomical Society are spending the year creating outreach programs at the Athens Public Library to enhance the public's understanding of astronomy and space science.

"The taxpayer funds our work here," Sharma says. "I really believe we owe it to the taxpayers to share what we know -- and it's really fun!" NASA created the IDEAS grant as a way to fund innovative and creative approaches to integrating astronomy and space science into the American education experience.

To fulfill the goals of the grant, the team of local astronomers created a three-pronged education and outreach strategy: securing exhibits from NASA for show in southeast Ohio; organizing a series of talks by astronomers and astronauts (highlighting women and ethnic minorities); and developing Space Days, a five-part series of inquiry-based, hands-on astronomy activity events developed for children in grades four through six. All events, held at the Athens Public Library, are free and open to the public.

"Kids are great! Kids have completely open minds. They have insatiable curiosity," Sharma says of the participants in Space Days. "There's a concern about maintaining high standards of science education in schools. We need to ignite their interest when they're really young, for example, when they haven't been told 'girls can't do science.'"

It's Our Universe

The Athens Public Library will host a series of free events celebrating the universe, including:

  • Oct. 20-Nov. 10 - Presenting ... the Universe!
  • Saturday, Nov. 4, 1 to 3 p.m. - Space Day: Lunar Landing
  • Thursday, Nov. 9, 7 p.m. - Seth Shostak lecture

For more information, contact the library at 592-4272.

Space Days participants have already used telescopes to study the solar system and the sun; future Space Days will cover the moon, constellations and the universe.

"We're pretending they're astronauts in training," says Maryann Hartwick, president of SEOAS and the team member who took the lead on creating Space Days. "We talk about what they have to do now to be astronauts later -- they have to study math and science. We want them to be thinking of goals, of math and science careers."

According to the National Science Foundation, during the 1990s foreign-born individuals holding science and engineering jobs in the United States grew from 14 percent to 22 percent, reflecting a decline in scientists and engineers coming out of the American education system.

SEOAS makes astronomy presentations to hundreds of kids a year. "As an amateur astronomer, I enjoy sharing what I know about the sky with others," says Hartwick, who grew up on Long Island and never saw stars as a kid. When she was 28 years old and living in upstate New York, she had an experience that sparked her interest in astronomy. "I went outside a couple of nights in a row and noticed this cloud in the sky -- always in the same place. It took me several nights to realize that I was seeing the Milky Way."

In contrast, one of Sharma's first memories from her childhood in India is of her father showing her the constellations and teaching her the Indian names for them. Later, when she was in high school, Sharma and two other students -- along with the help of a group of local amateur astronomers -- made a telescope from scratch. They ground the mirror by hand, taking more than a week of 10-hour days to do so.

Back on campus, Sharma researches galaxies and how they are influenced by their surrounding galaxies. She also teaches a survey of astronomy course as well as other courses, such as one titled Life in the Universe scheduled for winter quarter, where she will cover, among other things, the prospect of other intelligent life in the universe.

Photos by Attila Horvath"(The universe) is very mysterious, but we have the capacity to solve some of those mysteries. Humans are very inventive," Sharma says. "We are very, very tiny in physical size, but our minds can span the whole universe and that really excites me."

Beginning Oct. 20, the Athens Public Library will host several events as part of the "It's Our Universe" program. Through Nov. 10, the library will be home to "Presenting ... the Universe!" A NASA Glenn traveling exhibit, the show will include scale models of the Mars Rover and the space shuttle as well as interactive demonstrations. "Space Day: Lunar Landing" is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 4, from 1 to 3 p.m. The following Tuesday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, will give a public lecture. The SETI Institute conducts scientific research on life in the universe. Shostak is also host of the radio program "Are We Alone?"

All events are free and open to the public. For more information, call the Athens Public Library at 592-4272 or go to www.athenscounty.lib.oh.us/.

Mary Reed is a writer with University Communications and Marketing. Photos by Attila Horvath.

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Published: Oct 16, 2006 11:04:00 PM
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