By Keely Finkelstein

keely MG 2063Image: Educators using the Galaxies & Cosmos Explorer Tool.  Image credit: K. Finkelstein.

Working with teachers and students always fuels my love for astronomy, it continues to motivate me to do what I do, and love doing it. Many of us chose astronomy because we love the fascination of it, we like working out problems, discovering unknowns, and finding out what the universe is trying to tell us.  Often astronomy can be one of the easier sciences to share and engage the public with; people get excited about the vastness of space, but it still presents a challenge.  How do we effectively advocate for science, engage people in meaningful ways, help create a science literate public, and spark that curiosity in the next generation of scientists and engineers? 

One of the best ways I think to keep progressing science is to engage students and budding young scientists in real research, or bring real data into the classroom.  Astronomy and data from real astrophysics research projects can be a very effective and accessible tool to use in the classroom.  There are many great programs and resources out there, and I’ll try to share a few of my favorites.

At McDonald Observatory, many of the classroom activities that we have helped create over the years have come directly from the research done here at UT-Austin and McDonald Observatory.  We try to create hands-on activities that either use real data or are inspired by the science and connect directly back to the science.

A few examples include:

“Coma Cluster of Galaxies” – use unprecedented images from the Hubble Space Telescope to classify galaxies and gain insights into the evolution of galaxies in different types of environments.

“Seeing the Invisible: Dust in the Universe” – explore properties of dust and the astronomical research of dust in space with various inquiry based activities.  All activities are tied to real research done with the Spitzer Space Telescope.

“Light Detectives: Using WISE Data to Identify Brown Dwarfs and ULIRGS” – students can use real images from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to analyze and identify different types of astronomical objects.

“Galaxies and Cosmos Explorer Tool (GCET)” – students can access real HST data and measure sizes, shapes, and look-back time to galaxies.

Other programs can give students direct access to telescope data, telescope observing and more:

Citizen Science platforms in the classroom” – citizen science is an amazing way to connect anyone in the public to a real research program and problem, and classrooms are no exception.  A few great examples of citizen science projects in astronomy are the Zooniverse Projects and CosmoQuest Projects.  Projects range from the Galaxy Zoo, to Disk Detectives, to Mars Mappers.

Sometimes it might be hard to know where to look, and there are so many different resources out there.  We try to incorporate many of these free resources into our teacher programs and training at McDonald Observatory, but even if you can’t come to a workshop, if you do know where to look, astronomy resources, activities, and data are always a great, easily accessible, and usually free way to bring the real science into the classroom or into your home.  We can open more doors to students’ learning, curiosity, and creative thinking just by making them a part of something bigger.



keelyKeely Finkelstein is an astronomer and educator at the University of Texas at Austin.  Keely leads the K-12 education programs through McDonald Observatory and teaches introductory astronomy courses at UT-Austin.  Keely received her PhD at Arizona State University, and her research work focuses on galaxy evolution and star formation.  She enjoys spending time with her family (her husband, two young children, and two fun loving dogs), especially taking advantage of all the great outdoor things to do in Austin, TX.  Follow Keely on Twitter @astrokeely or find more information on the education programs and resources from McDonald Observatory at: