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Glencoe astronomy class digs deeper into outer space

A few of John Gibbs’ astronomy students went way beyond stargazing last year when they signed up for his semester-long class.Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO - Glencoe High School students (left to right) Ashwin Datta, Emily Hodgson, Sarah Cashen and Megan Lince -- as well as Glencoe science teacher John Gibbs -- stand in front of the poster they presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle in January.

They ended up working with professional astronomers to research real data collected from the same sources used by the pros.

In January, Gibbs, a Glencoe High School science teacher, and four of his students traveled to Seattle to present their research at the American Astronomical Society.

The research was done as a part of the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP), a professional development opportunity for educators and a chance for student to work closely with a research astronomer.

Dr. Luisa Rebull, staff scientist with the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., was the group’s mentor. Glencoe’s group — Ashwin Datta, Emily Hodgson, Sarah Cashen and Megan Lince — worked with students from high schools in Utah, Colorado and Nebraska.

The team was looking for infrared excesses around a set of “old” stars that were thought to have recently ingested a planet.

The working theory in the world of astronomy, Gibbs explained, is that “as a star gets old, it puffs out and gets bigger. It can actually swallow up a planet.”

When that happens it leaves infrared excesses or “a dusty ring around the star that we could see as an infrared signature,” Gibbs said.

His group studied data collected from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space-based telescope, combined with optical and near-infrared data from other archives.

The students spent a week last summer at Caltech’s IPAC processing data from WISE, “to make it suitable for research,” Gibbs said.

What they found was not what they were expecting. It was surprising not only to them, but to those in the astronomy research community as well.

The team’s results put in question the entire model of infrared excesses being a side-effect of the planet ingestion process. Upon reassessing the original objects that were the basis of the model, the group found that few of them were stars at all.

“It cast a doubt,” Gibbs said of the research findings. “Our work may end up being published, which is a big deal,” he added. Rebull and other professionals will write the paper, he said, and the Glencoe students will likely be credited for their research.

Those students are still working to wrap up the project, even as Gibbs organizes a new group of students for a 2015-16 project.

Gibbs said his new group of students will work with Dr. Varoujan Gorjian of IPAC and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory “looking for characteristic properties of active galactic nuclei” and will travel to Kissimmee, Fla., in January of 2016 to present at the Astronomical Society meeting.

The real-world scientific research experience was the highlight of the program, said Hodgson, a junior. “This was actual science, not just a school project,” she said. “Caltech was a fun experience.”

Lince, a senior, said the experience has piqued her interest in studying science. She is considering studying astrophysics in college.

Cashen, a junior, said she took away a more personal lesson from the experience. “It’s OK to look into something and be wrong,” she said. “When teachers call on you in class, they’re expecting you to have the right answer.” Not necessarily so in scientific research, she said.

“NITARP is a phenomenal opportunity,” he said. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in terms of professional development. It’s fun working with teams from across the county.”

He said the program has helped him be a better teacher. He has taught at Glencoe since 1998 and teaches astronomy, physics and Advanced Placement physics.

He has shared his NITARP experiences with teachers during state and national meetings of the Science Teachers Association.

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