Summer Research Program for Science Teachers

Britt Reichborn-Kjennerud, Riverdale Country School - 1997

A Study of Hydra Cluster Galaxies


As a teacher of astronomy I am blessed with a subject which naturally invites intriguing questions and exciting discussions. However, astronomy is a challenge to teach in that astronomy is a science of objects which lie very far away. In addition, the light pollution and limited visibility of the sky around buildings in New York City offers its own challenges to having kids make naked-eye observations on their own at night. Therefore, I will focus my action plan on how my summer experience at Columbia has offered me numerous opportunities to use more hands on investigative activities in the classroom. In particular, I will address the process of scientific research, including how astronomers actually obtain and analyze data, the significance of accuracy and scientific error, problem solving, and the implementation of successful methods of cooperative learning. [Teaching Standard A- Select and adapt content]

I will be able to incorporate my data directly into the classroom with a unit on galaxies, the focus of my research at Columbia. Before completing any reading or discussion of galaxies, the students will obtain images of various types of galaxies using optical photos from the Digital Sky Survey archive of the HST website to expose the students to the different morphologies of galaxies. [Teaching Standard D- Make resources accessible] They will individually create a classification system for the different types of galaxies in the photos without any guidelines or limitations. [Content Standard Unifying Concepts- Systems, order, and organization] Afterwards, they will discuss this system in groups of three to produce an ideal classification system and compare their results to the Hubble tuning fork classification system. [Content Standard A- Formulate and revise explanations] The students will then complete reading in the text book and from recent articles taken from Astronomy magazine covering the history of the discovery of galaxies and what we know to date about galaxies. This will be followed by a classroom discussion of the various types of galaxies and the components of each galaxy. With this basic understanding of galaxies, students will then analyze astronomical data which I obtained this summer and for which I produced images and plots as outlined in the attached lesson plan.

The benefits of this project are varied. Primarily, the students will learn analysis and problem-solving skills while interpreting real scientific data which has not yet been analyzed by myself or other astronomers. In addition, the students will discover first hand the challenges astronomers face in studying objects located so far away from the earth. The group discussion will provide an opportunity for the students to discover why scientists work in conjunction with other members of their institution and other institutions in order to encourage the generation of diverse ideas and interpretations to best understand the data.

My data and other data resources on the internet will also be useful in teaching the students about the electromagnetic spectrum. A unit using data downloaded from the HST and NRAO websites from various regions of the spectrum (visible, infrared, radio and possibly x-ray, microwave, and ultraviolet) to observe the same object will offer the students a better understanding of the different types of electromagnetic radiation and how each range of wavelengths reveals different information about the same object. [Content Standard B- Interactions of energy and matter]

SUBJECT: Analysis of Galactic Data

AIM: To give the students an understanding of both galaxies and the research process, including how astronomers come to understand far away objects, the significance of precision and error in data, and the inability of astronomers to make firm or absolute conclusions.


The students will be completing real scientific analyses with scientific data which has not yet been analyzed.

OBJECTIVES -The students will be able to:

--work effectively in groups

--interpret the scientific data in their data set

--appreciate the process of research

--explain the significance of scientific error

--explain the significance of the resolution of a telescope

--explain some uses of optical and radio data

--describe the morphologies and components of different types of galaxies

--explain recent research considerations in the field of galaxies



With a basic understanding of galaxies learned in the pre-lessons outlined in the action plan, students will begin to analyze the astronomical data which I obtained this summer and for which I produced images and plots. Each set of data for a galaxy will contain a neutral hydrogen contour overlay on optical greyscale of the field of the galaxy (to determine the local environment of the galaxy), a close-up of the galaxy with HI contours overlaid on optical greyscale, a velocity field, a velocity field overlaid on optical greyscale and a rotation curve or slice. To introduce this section I will use data from an example galaxy on transparencies and ask the students to jot down their interpretation of each piece of data, after which we will discuss the reasonable interpretations as a class. This lesson will teach the students the methods of analyzing the data and the criterion which they must address in their analysis.

With this experience, the students will be prepared to analyze a galaxy with a partner or in a group of three, depending on the class size. After each student is given a copy of the data set, he or she will individually write notes on the significance of each piece of data based on the criterion laid out in the group lesson; this will ensure that each student will have some material to contribute to the subsequent group discussion. [Content Standard A- Communicate and defend an argument] [Teaching Standard B- Orchestrate discourse] Before the group discussion, the class will determine the necessary components of a productive group discussion, such as being sure to offer all members an opportunity to speak and the establishment of a safe environment where all members feel comfortable expressing their opinions without a fear of criticism. After the discussion of their lab notes with their group member(s) each student will write up his or her own report on that galaxy where he or she relays the conclusions of the group and possibilities for future study. Finally, each group of students will present their interpretations to the members of the class who will offer questions and comments.


The students will be evaluated on their ability to work effectively in their group, the quality of their written report, and the quality of their group presentation. In addition, they will take a test which will address the morphology and components of galaxies addressed in the pre-lesson, and contain a series of questions involving data interpretation. [Teaching Standard C- Use multiple methods to gather data about student understanding]


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