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HI STAR: Inspiring Students

by Katie Whitman

HI STAR participants and instructors.

2010 HI STAR participants and instructors.


Don Starkey and students
Yamagata and students
Lina Hang
Top: Don Starkey, owner/operator of the DeKalb Telescope, Indiana, prepares students for its use.
Middle: Justin Yamagata, middle school teacher from Waimea Canyon School, Kauai (front), works with his students as HI STAR instructor J.D. Armstrong (standing) looks on.
Bottom: Student Lina Hang measures the focal length of a lens.

This past summer, 16 enthusiastic middle and high school students, along with four of their teachers, participated in an astronomy camp at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. Sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), the IfA, and the Center for Computational Heliophysics in Hawai`i (C2H2), this camp, called Hawai`i Student/Teacher Astronomy Research (HI STAR) and organized by IfA's Mary Kadooka, has been operating since 2007. It provides an immersive scientific environment for motivated students and teachers from across the Hawaiian Islands.

HI STAR lasts for six days. Its participants live in the UH dorms, eat at the university cafeteria, and attend lectures and participate in activities in classrooms and computer rooms on campus. Through NAI's financial support, along with the cooperation of the UH and private sources of funding, HI STAR remains accessible to all students interested in astronomy, regardless of socioeconomic status. In each of the past four years of HI STAR, approximately 30 percent of the students were considered minority or at-risk students.

The camp's curriculum places a strong focus on introducing students to professional scientists. Through lectures, HI STAR campers learn about cutting-edge research from the scientists who actually carry out that research. This year, students learned about solar physics from Ilia Roussev (head of C2H2), infrared astronomy and instrumentation from Alan Tokunaga (division chief for the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility), astrobiology from Stephen Freeland (project manager of UH NAI), and the young solar system from Gary Huss (Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology). Karen Meech (IfA) gave a particularly special talk in which she shared the latest plans for the EPOXI mission.

The HI STAR curriculum was developed with the philosophy that giving students the opportunity to participate in science research before college will inspire them to choose science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors. Thus, students work directly with UH astronomer mentors throughout the week to complete a research project. On the last day of camp, students give 10-minute presentations describing their projects' methodologies and results to the astronomy community at the IfA. In 2010, student projects explored the variability of stars, the rotation curves of asteroids, the orbital characteristics of a Centaur, exoplanet transits, a hypothesized relationship between the phases of the Moon and earthquakes, and the relationship between the Sun's variability and extragalactic cosmic rays.

Students are encouraged to continue working with mentors throughout the school year to complete science fair projects. In 2009, 60 percent of students completed science fair projects, and 35 percent reached the State Science and Engineering Fair. A number of students from the 2010 HI STAR are continuing to work with their mentors into the current school year, and Kadooka expects that many will complete science fair projects.

In addition to doing research, the HI STAR students learn important physics concepts and the tools necessary to do astronomy through a combination of formal lectures, demonstrations, and interactive activities to ensure that all learning styles are addressed. Because there are students and teachers who return from year to year (half were returnees in 2010), the curriculum continues to evolve to avoid repetition. In 2010, physics topics covered included plasma, optics, angular momentum, electricity and magnetism, and particle radiation. To investigate topics in astronomy, students were introduced to a variety of software packages and carried out observations with the 2-meter Faulkes Telescope on Haleakala and the De Kalb Telescope in Indiana.

That so many HI STAR students continue with long-term research projects indicates that HI STAR does generate interest in the sciences. The real test, however, is whether students continue in the sciences when they go to college. To date, six HI STAR students have graduated from high school. Three have chosen STEM majors in college, two students have chosen nonscience majors, and one has joined the Marine Corps. HI STAR organizers will continue to follow up with students as they graduate.