High school teachers and students continue doing real astronomy research despite the global pandemic

In many ways, January 2022 is not a typical January. Most years, we announce at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) that the current class of educators from the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP) has graduated, and a new class of NITARP educators is starting up. 

However this year the January AAS meeting was cancelled due to the pandemic. Nevertheless … NITARP carries on!

The graduating NITARP educators started their work just before the global COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020. NITARP has been running for more than a decade, and a lot of our teams’ work is done remotely, so the program was able to continue through the COVID chaos. 

Central to the NITARP experience, though, are trips to visit the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, CA to do intensive in-person data analysis and to the winter meeting of the AAS to present their results. The NITARP group that is finishing worked through all of 2020 and 2021 in the hopes that they would get to travel to Pasadena or to the winter AAS meetings in January 2021 or January 2022. But the teams did not get to travel in summer 2020, January 2021, summer 2021, or January 2022; the first three of these meetings were held only with remote participation, while the January 2022 meeting was cancelled entirely. 

Despite the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic and “telecon fatigue,” the teams persevered and managed to finish several posters on their work. (They also presented intermediate results at the January 2021 online-only AAS meeting.) At the moment, they are hoping and planning that they will be able to present this work at the June 2022 AAS meeting in Pasadena, CA, although no one can predict what twists and turns may arise as the pandemic continues.

Concurrently, the new educators selected for the 2022 class had hoped to meet their new teams at the January 2022 AAS meeting. These teams have met each other online via teleconference software and are now getting started on their own projects.  We are nothing at NITARP if not adaptable! It will be challenging to work entirely without having met in person, but we will make it work.

From NITARP’s early years through the 2022 class, a total of 131 educators from 39 states have participated or will participate; this year sees our first participant from Vermont. NITARP works with educators because, through them, NITARP reaches thousands of students per year with information about how science really works, what NASA does, and the wealth of astronomy data that is freely available to the public.

Here are the teams that were prepared to present posters at the January 2022 AAS meeting. These teams began work in 2020 and continued through the pandemic into 2021.

2020/2021 team working with Dr. Varoujan Gorjian (JPL/Caltech):

  • David Strasburger (Lawrence Academy, Groton, Massachusetts) – mentor teacher for the team
  • Neal Boys (George S. Parker High School, Janesville, WI)
  • Alyssa McElroy (Houston Middle School, Amarillo, TX)
  • Raghida Sharif (KIPP NYC College Prep High School, Bronx, NY)
  • David Temple (Longview High School, Longview, TX)

This team used variability at optical and infrared wavelengths to study the size of accretion disks around supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies called active galactic nuclei (AGN). The infrared light curves were obtained from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite’s all-sky catalog. The optical light curves were obtained from the ground-based Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF). The optical light from the accretion disk is reverberated (absorbed and re-emitted) at infrared wavelengths by outlying dust. The difference in time between changes in the optical and the same changes in the infrared indicate the separation between those two light-emitting regions, giving the size of the accretion disk. At the conclusion of their effort, they had identified several promising candidates that seemed to show optical light being reverberated in the infrared. 

2020/2021 team working with Dr. Luisa Rebull (Caltech / IPAC):

  • Vin Urbanowski (Academy of Information Technology & Engineering, Stamford, CT) – mentor teacher for the team
  • Robert Anderson (JL Mann High School, Academy of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, Greenville, SC)
  • Brandon Rodriguez (Crescenta Valley High School, La Crescenta, CA)
  • Benjamin Senson (James Madison Memorial High School, Madison, WI)

This team looked for young stars in a region called IC417, the Spider Nebula. They continued work begun by a 2015 NITARP team, which looked for young stars here using infrared excesses. In 2020, they picked up where the 2015 team left off, including new young star candidates from the literature, and adding some very intriguingly red stars from a somewhat overlooked portion of IC 417 called the Nebulous Stream (NS) which is most obvious in the mid-IR (3.6 and 4.5 μm).  In 2021, they continued their assessment of these candidates, settling on 710 of them as likely young stars, 512 of which they are fairly confident are legitimate young stars. They also began exploring the optical and IR variability properties of these young star candidates (in ZTF and NEOWISE, respectively), finding that a bit more than half of them are significantly variable. 

All of their posters are available on the NITARP website right now.

The 2020/2021 educators will now go on to conduct at least 12 hours of professional development for their colleagues in their schools and communities, at the local, regional, and national levels, online and in-person.

NITARP is announcing today the 2022 class of educators and their teams, as follows:

2022 team working with Dr. Luisa Rebull (Caltech/IPAC):

  • David Friedlander-Holm (The Bay School of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA) – mentor teacher for the team
  • Rita Ciambra (Peoples Academy, Morristown, VT)
  • Kathy Gustavson (GLAS Education, Walworth, WI)
  • Mary Swigert (Jupiter Community High School, Jupiter, FL)
  • Ethan Van Winkle (Southeast High School, Lincoln, NE)

2022 team working with Dr. Varoujan Gorjian (JPL/IPAC):

  • Olivia Kuper (North Greene High School, Greeneville, TN) – mentor teacher for the team
  • Jeff Benter (Tri-Valley CUSD #3, Downs, IL)
  • Janine Bonham (Oley Valley School District, Oley, PA)
  • Anna Karsten (Lincoln High School, Lake City, MN)

They plan to present their results, with their students, at the 2023 AAS winter meeting to be held in Seattle, WA.

IPAC, based at Caltech, in Pasadena, CA, is leading this program. These teams use archival data from the NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive (IRSA), the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED), and the NASA Exoplanet Archive, all of which are based at IPAC, and other NASA archive holdings. Funding comes from the NASA Astrophysics Data Program.