Astronomy educators awarded $ 2.8 million to inspire minority youth to pursue careers in STEM


PICTURE: A YouthAstroNet participant uses his newly acquired image analysis skills to create a composite image of an exploding star using real data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. view After

Credit: Mary Dussault / Center d’astrophysique | Harvard and Smithsonian

Cambridge, MA ¬- Despite years of effort, diversifying into the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) remains a challenge. In fact, in 2019, underrepresented minorities held just 9% of academic positions in science, engineering and health, according to a report from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Now researchers at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian are exploring a new avenue to help solve this problem: astronomy.

“Our research suggests that astronomy, especially when experienced in personally and culturally relevant contexts, can be a first gateway to attracting young people to STEM,” says Mary Dussault, teacher in STEM. sciences at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “Astronomy has wide appeal, with its predominance in news and popular culture, as well as the fact that we all have big questions about our place in space and time, which are deeply existential.”

Thanks to a new $ 2.8 million grant from NSF, Dussault and his team will be able to test their theory by sharing engaging and interactive astronomy experiences with 15,000 young people over the next five years.

The grant will specifically support the expansion of the Youth Astronomy Network, or YouthAstroNet, an educational program first created at CfA in 2015. The program targets middle school students aged 11 to 14, with a particular focus on girls and students from under-represented groups.

Over the past 5 years, YouthAstroNet has reached nearly 4,500 young people in over 20 states. Participating sites include museums, libraries, and community centers, such as Eagle Butte Upper Elementary School on the Cheyenne River Reservation of South Dakota; Jefferson International Academy in Detroit, Michigan; and the Park Forest Public Library in South Chicago.

Feedback on the program has been positive, says Dussault, and young people are particularly drawn to Micro-Observatory, a collection of five robotic ground-based telescopes around the world that students can control and use. Students simply select what the telescope observes online and receive an image of their observation the next day. Other YouthAstroNet activities include analyzing digital images to improve and take measurements of astronomical images.

The team’s initial studies show that the approach works.

In the pre- and post-program participation surveys, students expressed a positive change in their attitude towards STEM and an increased interest in pursuing careers in STEM. For girls in particular, experiencing hands-on activities was associated with greater gains in STEM professional interest and scientific identity. For black students, active participation in the YouthAstroNet online learning community, including online questions and answers with scientists, has predicted an increase in interest in STEM careers.

“We’ve even found that students use YouthAstroNet outside of program hours and in their spare time,” says Dussault.

Thanks to the NSF grant, the team will now expand the innovative program even further, recruiting an additional 600 educators from across the country to participate. The team will also try to improve its early results in order to deepen and sustain the impact of YouthAstroNet on learners.

“NSF has given us an incredible opportunity to work with talented educators in every state to expand participation and promote strategies that improve important STEM learning outcomes for diverse communities,” says Erika Wright, Co-Principal Investigator who manages the YouthAstroNet online learning community.

Dussault is particularly eager to see the curriculum grow to help create more equitable and inclusive forms of STEM learning.

“Knowledge of the sky really belongs to everyone,” she said. “People from all walks of life should have every chance to use their creativity to ask big questions and generate innovative ways to answer those questions.”


The other co-principal investigators of the project are Philip Sadler, Gerhard Sonnert and Susan Sunbury.

About the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard and Smithsonian

The center of astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian is a collaboration between Harvard and the Smithsonian designed to ask – and ultimately answer – humanity’s greatest unresolved questions about the nature of the universe. The Center for Astrophysics is headquartered in Cambridge, MA, with research facilities in the United States and around the world.

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