How do you introduce students to a space telescope that has not yet launched? How do you engage those not naturally drawn to science? How do you use astronomy to stimulate a student's internal creativity?
For our edcuational outreach program, one answer is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) STEM Innovation Project (SIP). STEM, by the way, is a common acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. In recent years, there has been much emphasis on improving STEM education and preparing students for STEM careers. The JWST SIP (gads, acronyms embedded within acronyms) is one of those efforts to help kids engage with the science and technology that will come to fruition in their lifetimes.
The program partners with classroom teachers to present the JWST hardware and astronomy goals to students across the country. But presenting such information is just the preliminary goal. The real goal is to engage the students' imaginations to create diverse interpretations of these ideas. And I really mean diverse.
Being several years away from seeing science images from JWST (launch slated for 2018), the focus has naturally been on the hardware. Students have made models of JWST in spectacularly inventive ways: using lasagna noodles for the layers of the sunsheild, marshmallows for the mirror segments, and recycled materials from soda bottles to bicycle wheels to plastic dolls. One of the most amazing models was the creation of "JWST in a bottle." Kids have also explored JWST science by making exoplanets out of cake pops and writing press releases for expected JWST discoveries.
In the process of their creative work, these students were not just doing art projects. They used math in creating the proportions of their scale models. They used geometry in making and combining the hexagons of the mirror segments. And they got real life lessons in engineering their substitute hardware to match the real telescope. These projects represent a wonderful confluence of science and art in education.
Sarah Hemenway from Hutto Middle School is one teacher who participated. She found her class both engaged and invigorated by not only studying but also reinterpreting an upcoming NASA mission. Most surprisingly, hers is not a science class — she teaches history.
Her students and other SIP particpants will be prepared when JWST's discoveries make history later this decade. Most will not follow on into STEM careers, but all will be aware and appreciative of the vast efforts necessary to enable the next advance in astronomy. These students are engaging the future today.