CU brings astronomy lessons, portable planetarium to Frederick High School

Originally posted in the Longmont Times-Call >>

CU students spent Tuesday at Frederick High School, teaching astronomy lessons and leading presentations in an inflatable planetarium.

They covered astrobiology, black holes and how scientists find planets outside the solar system, along with giving students a tour of the cosmos in the planetarium.

"Sometimes science is sidelined in high school because math and physics can turn people off," said CU senior Brittney Washington. "This is a good way to show students that not only can astronomy be super cool and super fun, it's also accessible to everyone. You open that world to them."

The CU students are part of the University of Colorado Science, Technology and Astronomy Recruits, or CU STARS, program. The program is supported by CU's outreach office.

Through the volunteer program, now in its seventh year, undergraduate students and graduate student mentors visit high schools around the state to lead hands-on activities.

The program makes three to four visits to high schools a year, including two-day trips so they can visit places that include Carbondale, Trinidad and the San Louis Valley.

Program director Erica Ellingson, a CU astrophysical and planetary science professor, said the program allows undergraduate students to share their passions and encourage high school students to consider science as a future career.

"They talk about science, their experiences in college and the path they took to get to college," she said. "We try to be outreach ambassadors for CU."

Two of the 10 undergraduate students who led the lessons on Tuesday — Washington and her sister, Taylor — were Frederick High graduates. Several others are CU freshmen who just graduated in May.

"It's their first steps to being scientists," Ellingson said.

CU freshmen astrophysics majors Noah Ferich said it was a little weird to take on the role of a teacher in front of a high school so soon after being a high school student.

"I have a new appreciation for teachers," he said, adding he joined the CU STARS program to share his love of astrophysics. "I'm really passionate about it, and I like to teach it to other people."

For the lesson on finding planets, the CU students used Lego models as a teaching tool as they explained the various methods scientists use to search for distant planets that could support life outside our solar system.

Scientists, they said, concentrate on planets in the "Goldilocks" zone — that just-right zone where planets just the right distance from a medium-size star could support life.

They also talked about the challenges.

To find a planet like Earth, they said, scientists would need to look at a star for three years to see the planet make a transit, blocking a tiny fraction of the star's light, for three years.

"There's so much area to look at," Brittney Washington said. "Not only does it take time for the planet itself to show up, it's where do we look. They could be anywhere."

Frederick students gave the program good reviews.

"It was great," said senior Ariel Atma, whose physics class participated in the Lego model activity. "They really knew what they were talking about."

Classmate Issac Lujan declared the visit "cool and interesting."

Mara Blom, an exchange student from the Netherlands, added that she appreciated the chance to learn more about CU.

"I may want to go study here," she said.