Thoughts from the Classroom: Thinking of using Galaxy Zoo in your middle school classroom? Do it!

Today’s post comes from Victoria Talkington and kicks of a short series called Thoughts from the Classroom. Victoria is a middle school teacher at GATE Academy.  She and her students recently dove head first into the Zooniverse with Galaxy Zoo by completing over 9,000 classifications (many thanks from the science team)!  Victoria’s students also contacted Galaxy Zoo scientists and developers with their questions.  In today’s post Victoria tells about why she chose to bring Galaxy Zoo into her classroom.  In the coming weeks we’ll also share some her students’ impressions of participating in an online citizen science project as part of the Thoughts from the Classroom series.  Here at Zooniverse we thought is was about time we started listening directly to student perspectives on our projects.

I chose Galaxy Zoo for my middle school class because it’s real science.  It’s hands-on, minds on science, with the thrill of possible discovery.   Galaxy Zoo may seem, to the uninitiated, to be an addictive, time-sink fantasy game, with pretty pictures of dust lanes, swirling gases, and spiral galaxies.  In fact, it is the ultimate cosmology reality show.  Galaxy Zoo packages community involvement, cutting edge research, and classification skills, and draws kids in to a place where they are DOING something meaningful and genuine for all the world.

I’m an educator at GATE Academy, a school for academically gifted kids in Northern California.  My BA at Yale was in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, back in the late 1970’s when biotech was in its infancy.  After a stint at Harvard Law School for my JD, followed by a long career as a trial attorney, and then a decade of volunteer service in complex, multi-party administration arenas,  I started my fourth career in education.  With the internet and handheld devices making content oh-so-cheap, I realized that education has fundamentally changed.

Learning about the stars is not enough.  Kids need chances to do something valuable in the world.  The challenge that science faces today in attracting enthusiastic kids is that we’ve travelled so far.  What happens in labs and research is simultaneously too rarified and too granular to grab a young mind.  There’s too much start up time involved, and the details of the periodic table can seem remarkably dull when there’s MindCraft to play after school.

Galaxy Zoo cuts to the chase and ignites in kids an understanding that there is excitement and discovery out there beyond the pixels of fantasy software.  Galaxy Zoo teaches that everything hasn’t been discovered – there are still galaxies to hunt.  Kids can be Captain Kirk traveling on the Starship Enterprise, for real.  They can go where no human has gone before, looking at distant images, trying to understand what they are, and keeping their own captain’s log of their observations — or simply rely on the strong, slick classification tools of Galaxy Zoo.  Galaxy Zoo enables kids to discover how the hard work of real science opens their minds, and makes them curious about their world.

If I were to suggest starting your a class on Galaxy Zoo, I’d have the kids dive right into classifying with only minimal introduction.  And you know, what they are doing will be puzzling and it won’t make too much sense to them at first.  So, they will start asking questions.  List their questions on a board, but don’t answer them.  Maybe they won’t see the point.  You’ll be able to suggest that they look at the Galaxy Zoo “Story” for homework.  They’ll read it — and a couple of kids will “get” what the adventure is.  You can talk together about it at the next class– what do the kids think they are doing?  Guide them into understanding that they are helping to figure out how galaxies form, and that this thing, this task that they are involved in, is how true discovery and scientific work takes place –  image by image, galaxy by galaxy, categorization by categorization.  How many classifications do they think they can achieve over the duration of your term?  Set a goal.  And gently, as your kids become more and more engrossed in Galaxy Zoo classifying, you can start introducing readings on galaxies.  Little current news items from, say Scientific American or Science News.  Somehow, suddenly, what would have been dry content for most of the class, greeted by groans or (worse),  becomes material that most of them are interested in.  They might even start doing Galaxy Zoo classifications at home . . . instead of MineCraft.  Who knows?  A new Captain Kirk might be discovered in your classroom.  Teaching for the stars.

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