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When Young Astronomers Are the Stars

When Young Astronomers Are the Stars

By Karen Klinger

It was “Astronomy in the City” night at MIT’s Stata Center and the stars were shining brightly.

In this case, the stars were middle and high school students showing off projects they had created during the past year as participants in programs sponsored by the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

At the May 16 community showcase, the students from Boston and Lynn demonstrated what they’d taken away from three innovative programs funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA and designed to bring science learning into their communities.

“This has produced huge gains in student performance,” said Alex Stryker, a teaching fellow with Boston’s Citizen Schools who has worked with educators at Kavli and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge to bring the “Kids Capture the Universe” apprenticeship to four middle schools.

Standing nearby was 12-year-old Kaitlyn Noll, talking to visitors about the “Galaxies Galore” exhibit she and her team at Boston’s McCormack Middle School created using images from an internet-controlled network of robotic telescopes called MicroObservatory.

“The students received the images they wanted (from NASA) via e-mail and then processed them and created captions,” Stryker explained as a judge with clipboard in hand walked over to inspect the galaxies exhibit, which won a prize during the ensuing awards ceremony.

Not far away, Heleno Depina, a junior at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston, discussed his exhibit on Comet Holmes, a once obscure comet that astounded observers worldwide last October by brightening nearly 400,000 times in 24 hours, making it visible to the naked eye for a time before fading.

For his research, Depina won a first prize at this year’s Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair and a $20,000 scholarship to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he intends to study astronomy. As a member of the Youth Astronomy Apprenticeship—one of two Kavli programs for urban high school students—he spent 14 weeks working with YAA staff at an after-school learning center and visiting MIT monthly.

While the Kavli program is designed for students in communities considered “underserved and underrepresented,” few likely have overcome as many obstacles to get where he is as Depina. During the recent Cambridge Science Festival, where he showed off his Comet Holmes display at the Harvard-Smithsonian center, he told how he arrived in Boston with his family just three years ago from Cape Verde, speaking no English and with what he described as a “sixth grade education.”

Now, his educational journey is set to continue this summer when he will join another Kavli program—the Chandra Astrophysics Institute, a yearlong opportunity for students in tenth through twelfth grades to pursue astronomy projects mentored by MIT scientists and using NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge.

While Depina aims to become an astronomer, Kavli Instistute education specialist Mark Hartman said the goal is not to create future scientists so much as to help students become articulate, well-rounded individuals and “science ambassadors” in their communities.

That role certainly fits Kenneth Cottrell, a sophomore at the Engineering School, part of Hyde Park High School in Boston, who was at the Stata Center with a display he created using wood, glass, a magnet and a ball bearing to explain regions in space known as black holes. A YAA participant, he won a second place prize at the state science fair and a $12,500 scholarship to Northeastern University.

With infectious enthusiasm, he can talk non-stop about topics ranging from Einstein’s theory of relativity to his dream of becoming an engineer and inventor. Starting in June, he plans to spend eight weeks at MIT as part of the Kavli Summer Youth Apprenticeship program, in which students spend at least 200 hours and are paid $1,500.

“I love being part of this. It’s like being part of a family,” he said. “The more knowledge you have, the clearer everything becomes.” And do his family and friends think he’s a science geek? “Oh, no,” he grinned. “They think I’m awesome.”