Discovery Files

Real Science for Younger Scientists

Real scientific projects go beyond "cookbook curriculum" and engage students in the unknown.

In the last several years, researchers on NSF-supported projects have found new asteroids, documented diving patterns of sea mammals and located the feeding area of an endangered bird.

This is standard science; it is what researchers do. But these researchers were still in school. Some were in the third grade.

"One of NSF's highest goals is the integration of education and science," explains Carl Pennypacker, director of the Hands-On Universe program and an astronomer at the University of California-Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The way to achieve that goal, he says, is to provide students with real data and information on how to go about interpreting them. Then, let the kids go. It's a step beyond providing experiments with known outcomes--often called "cookbook" science. Unlike what they get with a standard experiment book, these students don't know what will happen. No one does. And that's exciting.

Since 1990, programs such as Hands-On Universe, WhaleNet and The Albatross Project have engaged thousands of students across the globe and encouraged some of them to go on and study more science.

But the kids won't have to wait 20 years to become scientists--they already are.

Hands-On Universe

Hands-On Universe (HOU), an astronomy program that started in 1990, has already brought the stars to about 300,000 high school students around the country in its pilot and field test stages. School classes use software developed by HOU to scrutinize data from national and international telescopes, cataloging known space phenomena and identifying anomalies.

Among the accomplishments: In 1994, students from Oil City, Penn., were the first to capture an image of a supernova exploding in the Whirlwind Galaxy. In 1998, students at Northfield Mount Hermon High School in Mass. were the first to identify a new asteroid in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto that's home to small icy objects that could be debris left over from the formation of the solar system. Before the HOU team's feat, no one other than professional astronomers had discovered objects in the Kuiper Belt.

"Kids just go crazy about stars," says Pennypacker. It's a thought echoed by Utah high school physics teacher Curtis Craig. Craig has used HOU in his classrooms for 10 years, and he notes that because of HOU, physics is the biggest introductory science class in the school.

HOU taught Craig and others to go beyond the role of teacher-as-lecturer to teacher-as-coach. "All of a sudden you're not in front of them," Craig says about his role as an HOU teacher. "You're on the side, and you watch them go. It's really neat."

Richard Lohman concurs. Recently retired from teaching high school physics in the San Francisco area, Lohman appreciates the challenge to the students: given a problem and many possible tools, how will they solve it? He asked his class to find the mass of Jupiter but did not explain how to do it. "One student had created a very elegant solution. I had to have him explain it to me twice before I got it. For me that demonstrated the power in the HOU curriculum."


"The marine mammals are more or less just a hook," says J. Michael Williamson, director of the WhaleNet project, in describing the program's appeal to students. "The primary thing is they're learning critical thinking, geography, math and how to do research."

But as a hook, whales work. WhaleNet, operated out of Wheelock College in Boston, follows the daily movement of whales, seals, porpoises and sea turtles. To investigate the diving patterns of seals, for example, researchers attach small transmitters to animals. The tags send information to satellites about diving time and depth, time spent on the surface, and the animal's basic location. Researchers from collaborating organizations, such as the New England Aquarium in Boston and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, cull the same data as the students.

Using WhaleNet raw data requires some basic math skills, but the Web site provides analysis tools and a study guide. First students are asked to find the basic information, such as how far and in what direction did an animal travel? Then the guide moves to questions that require more analysis, such as: What trends do you observe in the seal's behavior?

The work may be challenging for some of the younger set, but because the transmitters are attached to real animals, the students care and want to work hard. Using real data is the key to engaging students, says Williamson. "It brings science alive."

The Albatross Project

"What I want to accomplish is a way for children, especially minorities and girls, to provide their own role model for scientists," explains Dave Anderson, head of The Albatross Project and a professor of biology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "They are doing science every day. And we [the PhDs] weren't doing anything different than they were."

Albatrosses are sizable birds. They can weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) and are among the world's largest flying birds. The Albatross Project monitored the birds as they nested, raised their young and found feeding grounds. Besides their size, albatrosses are known for their long-distance journeys. They can fly thousands of miles without landing. For the project, albatrosses that nested in Hawaii were fitted with tiny radio transmitters. Satellites then collected the data showing each bird's longitude and latitude at any given moment.

Although it only ran for three years, The Albatross Project involved 20,000 children across the globe and received rave reviews from teachers and students alike.

The project's success is partly due to its remarkably uncomplicated data, just longitude and latitude and time. As a result, the students were as much involved as the adult researchers, particularly at the moment when the transmitters started to answer one of scientists' basic questions about albatrosses: where do they eat?

Albatrosses studied in the project are native to Hawaii, but researchers knew they didn't eat there during nesting season. So where did the birds go for food? Kids from all over the country, some of whom had never seen an ocean, watched "their" albatrosses fly away from Hawaii to eat.

In fact the birds flew about 4,500 kilometers (3,000 miles), or half way across the Pacific Ocean to the California coast, where they ate, rested and flew back.

"No one knew that would happen," Anderson says, still sounding amazed at the length of the flight. "Researchers learned about it at the same time as the students."

And for Michelle Bergey, a third-grade teacher in California, it is this immediacy that sells the project. "This project has given the students something real to apply their knowledge to and inspired them to learn more about the world around them," she wrote in an e-mail to Anderson. "We have integrated biology, geography, oceanography, language arts, current events and math while following The Albatross Project, not to mention technology. There are 30 seven-to-10-year-olds here who know they can be scientists someday."

 They've already done the research.

 -- Amy Hansen