Press Release: CosmoQuest receives $11.5 million to expand programs

N.B. This is a summary release that includes content from each of the individual institutional releases. We will link to the individual releases once they are all posted on the web.

NASA has awarded Southern Illinois University Edwardsville $11.5 million to expand its citizen science and educational activities through CosmoQuest, a second-generation citizen science facility. CosmoQuest Project Director Dr. Pamela Gay, assistant research professor in the SIUE STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) Center, will lead the initiative as principal investigator.

NASA’s cooperative agreement funds CosmoQuest team members at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, InsightSTEM, Interface Guru, Lawrence Hall of Science, Johnson Space Center, McREL International, the Planetary Science Institute, McDonald Observatory and Youngstown State University.

With a portfolio of approximately 100 science missions, NASA’s commitment to education places special emphasis on increasing the effectiveness, sustainability and efficient utilization of SMD science discoveries and learning experiences. Goals also include enabling STEM education, improving U.S. scientific literacy, advancing national educational goals and leveraging science activities through partnerships.

“SIUE is excited and extremely proud to be among an amazing group of institutions chosen to advance NASA’s STEM education mission,” said Jerry Weinberg, associate provost for research and dean of the SIUE Graduate School. “This project partners SIUE with leading institutions in space and astronomy research to deliver unique online educational opportunities, building on Dr. Gay’s well-established work in citizen science. Dr. Gay’s leadership on this project supports SIUE’s strong commitment to engaging the community in STEM education and elevates that engagement to a global level.”

“With this funding, CosmoQuest will be able to grow from a seedling full of potential, into a mighty tree that supports science and learning opportunities,” said Gay. “We are bringing new partners with added expertise, and we couldn’t be prouder of this team.”

CosmoQuest’s software and educational activities will be developed out of SIUE. This includes the software that enables everyday people to help NASA scientists make new discoveries. Programs to date have helped the New Horizons team find Kuiper Belt Objects and have helped researchers map out the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and Vesta.

Future programs will expand beyond planetary science, including working with the University of Texas to explore dark energy and with Johnson Space Center to help earth scientists more effectively use astronaut images to study our changing planet.

While engaging the public is a major component of CosmoQuest, the program also contributes to the STEM employment pipeline. “By being located in SIUE’s interdisciplinary STEM Center, we’ve been able to bring together people from all areas of science, technology and education to collaborate creatively in a shared environment,” said SIUE’s Cory Lehan, CosmoQuest lead developer. “As we grow into the future, we’re going to be able to employ students on projects that support NASA science. Our team includes student programmers, graphic artists and even psychology majors who help us understand how to make our site better.”

Beyond science, CosmoQuest will leverage its online presence to provide planetariums and Science on the Sphere™ facilities new, creative commons licensed content that they can use and remix. Called “Projected Science,” this collaboration with Youngstown State University and Lawrence Hall of Science will create an online repository of data visualizations. Youngstown State University’s Ward Beecher Planetarium will continue development of full-dome video and 3D animation materials that will be distributed for free to planetaria across the globe.

YSU’s association with CosmoQuest dates to 2012 when the Ward Beecher Planetarium produced its first full-dome planetarium movie called “Cosmic Castaways.” The following year, the planetarium partnered with CosmoQuest to make available full-dome images of telescopes on the summit of Maunakea free-of-charge (as part of a creative commons license) to other planetaria across the world.

The NASA grant is a continuation and expansion of that work, Durrell said. Ward Beecher will now produce videos and images chronicling “citizen science” projects that will be developed by members of the CosmoQuest team, which also includes Planetarium engineer Curt Spivey. “With this funding, CosmoQuest will be able to grow from a seedling full of potential, into a mighty tree that supports science and learning opportunities,” says project principal investigator Gay. “We are bringing new partners with added expertise, and we couldn’t be prouder of this team.”

“We are in a golden age of space exploration, and NASA is providing some of the highest resolution views of the Universe in the history of humanity,” says Projected Science co-lead Toshi Komatsu, director of Digital Theaters at the Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley. “Digital platforms like the Science On a Sphere® and planetariums are the perfect venues to share these discoveries with the public.”

Based in the Great Plains, CosmoQuest brings science opportunities to people living outside big cities. This includes supporting educators in rural areas. “We’re working with a network of amazing educational professionals, who can support teachers bringing authentic science into their classrooms,” said SIUE’s Georgia Bracey, CosmoQuest educational lead. “We’re working to build a lasting community for our teachers, including an online home where they can get help and share their own lessons learned.”

Additional educator professional development partners include McREL International in the Rockies, The University of Texas, and the Planetary Science Institute  in the southwest and mid-Atlantic states. Each of theses teams will train formal and informal educators to help students engage with current NASA data. Additionally, PSI will lead an effort to increase the number of astronomy related science fair projects, both locally in Arizona and across the nation. PSI scientists will also recruit and support NASA scientists to include their data in CosmoQuest.

“This project offers fun and exciting ways for the public to directly engage with the process of science.  They become a critical piece of the process, collecting the data that eventually leads to a better understanding of our cosmos and the world around us,” Grier said. “It’s about much more than just having fun. Working with CosmoQuest develops critical thinking skills, and enhances overall science literacy.”

“Through one component of CosmoQuest, we will provide teachers and scientists nationally with the tools to help engage students with background science content, activities, and ideas for space-science related research projects that could lead to good science fair projects,” Lebofsky said. “Maybe some of these students will continue with their interest in space science and go on to be our next generation of explorers.”

From small planetariums, to small classes, CosmoQuest is constantly working to create a personalized experience while building community. “In the age of MOOCs (massive open online courses), we’re taking a different track and offering online classes that will never go over 20 students and are generally capped at eight,” says Jake Noel-Storr, director of InsightSTEM and lead for CosmoQuest’s CosmoAcademy program. “With this grant, our classes will become free to teachers, and we’ll be able to teach with the same best practices we hope they’ll use in their classes.”

The professional development models used in all of CosmoQuest’s programs are being developed by McREL International. Their programs will empower educators to integrate CosmoQuest activities into their respective learning environments and deepen their practice through the evolution and support of a dynamic CosmoQuest professional learning community highlighting space and earth sciences. In addition, McREL’s research and evaluation team will conduct rigorous evaluation of the CosmoQuest initiatives to ensure the entire project is constantly moving forward with impactful innovations.

In mid-2016, CosmoQuest will begin competitively selecting future topics for citizen science programs. Selected programs will receive funding to support research and communications of science goals and science results. Additional programs for supporting regional science fairs and school districts will begin in the 2017 school year.

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