Mar 4, 2003

The Cosmos is the Classroom

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At an upcoming workshop, teachers will learn to use black holes and other wonders of X-ray astronomy to teach science in their own classrooms.


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March 4, 2003: No one knows why young people find black holes so fascinating. Maybe it's the aura of a mysterious object shrouded in darkness. Maybe it's the notion that black holes are portals to distant parts of the Universe or to "parallel dimensions." Or maybe it's the awe-inspiring power of an object that gobbles up everything nearby, even light.

Whatever the reason, black holes are "cool." And that means they belong in the classroom.

Right: An artist's rendering of a black hole. The black hole itself may be invisible, but gas and dust falling into it emit X-rays, which Earth-orbiting telescopes can "see." [more]


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"Let's face it," says Mitzi Adams, an astronomer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), "an apple falling on Newton's head doesn't grab today's movie- and video game-saturated teenagers, much less fill them with a passion to learn about gravity, mass, and density."

But even Hollywood special effects can't hold a candle to the real-life phenomena that populate our Universe, such as black holes and supernovas. Just imagine the reaction in a classroom if one day the teacher said, "Okay class, today we're going to look at real data from a real telescope of a real black hole that's about 3,000 light-years from Earth." You can almost see their eyes widening now.

The message to the students is clear: these amazing objects are real, and all that "boring stuff" in the textbook is the way to understand them.

Below: A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the central region of our Milky Way galaxy. A supermassive black hole lurks inside the bright white patch near the center of the image. [more]

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This summer, July 20-23, NASA will sponsor a pair of teacher's workshops to help teachers bring the excitement of real-world astronomy into their own classrooms. One workshop will convene near the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, the other at the Wright Center for Science Education at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

Experts will be on hand to explain black holes, supernova explosions, binary stars, comets, planets and more ... but lectures are just the beginning: Teachers will also learn to use a simple version of the same powerful software professional astronomers use to transform raw data into important and meaningful conclusions. The data will come from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA space telescope sensitive to light in the X-ray range of the electromagnetic spectrum. These real-life data from Chandra are at the core of "inquiry based" classroom activities to be presented at the workshops.

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"There's a big move to teach science, instead of with a lecture mode, through the discovery mode ... sometimes called 'inquiry based' teaching," says Adams, who is organizing the Huntsville meeting.

Left: An artist's rendering of the Chandra X-ray Observatory orbiting Earth. [more]

The two workshops stem from a collaboration between NASA's MSFC and the Chandra X-ray Observatory Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (CXC). "These organizations have been working together for over 20 years to develop and launch the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and now they are collaborating on education activities," says Kathy Lestition, director of education and public outreach at CXC.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is ideal for observing such things as black holes and supernovas. Black holes are invisible to normal telescopes, of course, because light cannot escape their immense gravity. But this gravity also attracts surrounding dust and gas. "When matter falls toward the black hole, it becomes heated to very high temperatures and emits X-rays," explains Adams. "So if you see X-rays coming from an area of the sky in which there's no star visible ... then that's a possible candidate for a black hole."

Right: The X-rays given off as a black hole gobbles matter are here split into a spectrum, showing the various frequencies contained in the X-rays. [more]

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Teachers will be able to show their students real images of these clouds of doomed matter, explaining how knowledge of physics lets you "connect the dots" between the observed cloud and the hidden black hole in its center.

Support to attend each workshop is available for approximately 30 science teachers. Application forms can be found on the Internet at Applicants will be selected based on who "will get the most out of the workshop," Adams says.

Ultimately, it will be the students who get the most out of it. In their fascinating exposure to the real-world science of the darkest objects in the Universe, they may discover the illumination that learning science can bring.

Web Links

Chandra X-ray Observatory Center -- Gateway to the Universe of X-ray astronomy, for journalists, students and scientists.

Wright Center for Science Education teacher's workshops -- at Tufts University

Black Holes -- a tutorial about black holes and accretion disks

Black Holes -- educational links, from NASA's Spacelink

The Anatomy of Black Holes -- a teachers' resource with lots of information about black holes, including classroom activities. From NASA's "Imagine the Universe!"

X-Rays - Another Form of Light -- the basics of X-rays from Harvard's Chandra X-ray Observatory home page

Black Holes and Accretion Disks -- A tutorial from the Harvard CXO Field Guide to X-ray Astronomy

Science@NASA articles about black holes:

A Galactic Center Mystery -- Astronomers have learned that the center of our Milky Way galaxy harbors a long-sought black hole. But the finding has raised even more questions than before.

Energy from a Black Hole -- There are plenty of black holes that gobble energy. Now astronomers have spotted one in a distant galaxy that's giving some of its energy back.

Black Hole Snacks -- NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has spotted a curious outburst from our galaxy's core -- a sign that the Milky Way's central black hole may be snacking on its neighbors.

New Evidence for Black Holes -- By seeing almost nothing, astronomers say they've discovered something extraordinary: the event horizons of black holes in space.

A Monster in the Middle -- The Chandra X-ray Observatory may have spied a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy

Cosmic Bar Codes -- The Chandra X-ray Observatory has peered into the nucleus of a distant galaxy and detected warm gas flowing away from a black hole.

Measuring Spinning Black Holes -- Using data from several NASA satellites, scientists have measured the spins of several black holes, by accurately measuring the size of the last stable orbit of material around the black hole.

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