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Sunspotter in the Classroom

There has never been a better time to help scientists understand the mysteries of the sun. Sunspotter has been steadily making progress classifying images of sunspots for more than a year, and with this week being the first “Sunspotter Citizen Science Challenge”, it is an ideal opportunity to make yourself acquainted with (or revisit) www.sunspotter.org. While Sunspotter offers international appeal, giving science enthusiasts across the globe a chance to help us understand solar activity, in Ireland it has gained particular significance. Sunspotter is the first Irish-led Zooniverse project and is a project that helps us strive towards some of the national and international educational goals we have set ourselves as a country. The Irish education system is in a state of transition and one of the most exciting developments is the addition of a new science curriculum that will be offered to Irish students at Junior Cycle level (12-15 year olds). Introducing any new curriculum presents challenges, but one of the most exciting initiatives is the addition of an “Earth and Space” strand. This means that for the first time, Irish students will be learning about the formation of the Universe, the stars and the planets on a formal syllabus at junior level. On a European scale, one of the objectives of the European Commission is to help strive for a society that is more engaged in research, governance and accountability. Citizen science is seen as a method of encouraging young Europeans to become involved in science and to form evidence-based opinions on efficient and transparent uses of public and private science and research funding. All of this has led to Sunspotter being the perfect citizen science project to act as the basis of an educational initiative for Irish schools.

In order for Sunspotter to be utilised as a resource in Irish classrooms it required the support and contributions of a number of forward-thinking organisations. Firstly, it was piloted in Science Gallery Dublin (dublin.sciencegallery.com). This pilot allowed us to see if Sunspotter would work as a classroom activity. It was trialled with pens and paper and the students were tasked with identifying the sunspots in order of complexity (See Figure 1). This was a crude pre-digital version of Sunspotter but it still encapsulated the fundamentals of the project and showed the team that it could work as a larger educational initiative. Secondly, funding was awarded from Science Foundation Ireland (www.sfi.ie) so that Sunspotter could be brought to schools around Ireland. Members of the Sunspotter team designed the content and learning outcomes of the Sunspotter classroom workshops while PhD students in the Astrophysics Research Group at Trinity College (www.physics.tcd.ie/Astrophysics) were responsible for visiting schools around the country and delivering the workshops. Later in the project, these workshops will be made available as classroom resources at: http://www.zooteach.org. As well as directly visiting schools, the Sunspotter team brought workshops to a number of science festivals in Ireland, including World Space Week and the Midlands Science Festival (See Figure 2).

Sunspotter was first piloted in Science Gallery Dublin. This was the first look at the project that would eventually live at http://www.Sunspotter.org.

Figure 1: Sunspotter was first piloted in Science Gallery Dublin. This was the first look at the project that would eventually live at http://www.Sunspotter.org.

Figure 2: Sunspotter workshops took place at Science Festivals like World Space Week, where students not only had the chance to learn how to make comets (left image) they also took part in citizen science workshops (using iPads provided by the School of Physics - middle and right image) where they encountered Sunspotter and several other Zooniverse projects.

Figure 2: Sunspotter workshops took place at Science Festivals like World Space Week, where students not only had the chance to learn how to make comets (left image) they also took part in citizen science workshops (using iPads provided by the School of Physics – middle and right image) where they encountered Sunspotter and several other Zooniverse projects.

Over the course of the year Sunspotter workshops have taken place at schools across Ireland. Almost 20 different locations around the country have been visited. For each school visit, members of the Sunspotter team bring a set of iPads so that the students get a chance to participate in Sunspotter and other Zooniverse projects. They also learn about the merits of citizen science and how their contributions are crucial to eventually solving the mystery of sunspots and their role in warning us about eruptions on the surface of the Sun. More than 500 students have taken part in these workshops so far. Before and after each of the workshops the students fill out a short questionnaire to help evaluate the project, the results of which will be published in a science education journal. It is already obvious that visiting the schools and engaging students with a project like Sunspotter is a worthwhile endeavour. 93% of the students have not heard of Zooniverse before the workshops and 88% have never heard of “citizen science”. There have also been obstacles for the project to overcome. Travelling to workshops across Ireland in rural locations with a suitcase full of iPads is not a straightforward process. Subsequently finding out that the school and surrounding areas do not have as much Internet access as was perhaps thought can also be a challenge to members of the Sunspotter team. Funding for this work is also limited and hopefully more sources will be found over the coming months. Regardless of these barriers, Sunspotter will find its way into more Irish classrooms one way or another. The Sunspotter team will continue to make sure that as many young students as possible have a chance to engage in a citizen science project (See Figure 3).

Figure 3: Sunspotter workshops in the School of Physics in Trinity College Dublin (left image). Astrophysicists Dr Pietro Zucca and Áine Flood visiting classrooms in Co. Westmeath as part of the midlands Science Festival (left image)

Figure 3: Sunspotter workshops in the School of Physics in Trinity College Dublin (left image). Astrophysicists Dr Pietro Zucca and Áine Flood visiting classrooms in Co. Westmeath as part of the midlands Science Festival (right image).

While Sunspotter remains a Zooniverse project, its potential as an educational resource will continue to be explored. Overtime, we hope that the educational opportunities of Sunspotter will embrace the citizen science community as much as the science objectives of the larger project. This week is all about the “Sunspotter Citizen Science Challenge” and as well as helping us classify sunspots and spread the word about Sunspotter, feel free to get in touch with us and talk about your experiences using Sunspotter in the classroom or to share your ideas about how Sunspotter could be used as an educational resource in future. You can get in touch with the team on Twitter (we are @sunspotter_org). Thanks for helping us make Sunspotter a project that we can all be proud of and we look forward to more exciting developments in the future.

Dr Joseph Roche is an Astrophysicist and Assistant Professor in Science Education at Trinity College Dublin. Twitter: @joeboating