Category Archives: Education

Thoughts From the Classroom: Kat

Kat is sharing her impressions of Galaxy Zoo and Radio Galaxy Zoo as the fifth post in our Thoughts From the Classroom series.  

My name is Kat and I attend a school called GATE Academy.  Let me tell you a story about my experience with Galaxy Zoo.

Two months ago, my teacher discovered Galaxy Zoo.  She thought it would be a good class activity, so she had us read some articles as background information for what we were about to be doing on Galaxy Zoo.  These articles included information about the different characteristics of the different galaxy types and how this galactic information ties into the evolution of our Universe.  It hadn’t occurred to me before that galaxies tie into the Universe as a whole, but it made sense once I read it and I thought it was fascinating.  Then we started actually classifying galaxies as our class assignment.

In retrospect, I should have been amazed and acknowledged how incredible looking at these far-off galaxies was, but I just didn’t see it at the time.  I overlooked it because my mind was set on it being a class assignment and how I just needed to do it to get a good grade.

When I started, all that came up on my screen were pictures of blobs of clumpy blurry things.  I wasn’t very impressed.  Everyone around me, though, started seeing beautiful, wonderful images of incredible galaxies.

This is when I understood what a privilege it was to be participating in this new, cutting edge, amazing research.  On my screen showed actual galaxies from outer space.  It struck me how little we know about the universe around us, because nobody really knows what’s out there.  We have hypotheses, but, honestly, anything could be out there. I became proud of the blobs I classified, because you really needed to look and observe the characteristics, unlike perfect, sharp, clear galaxies (but these were really quite beautiful).  There was more mystery in the blobs for me, so classifying them correctly (or as close as I could get) became my challenge.

I learned a lot about classifying these galaxies along the way. The Zooniverse taught me about how galaxies can be spiral, irregular, or smooth, with bars, clumps, and varying sizes of central bulges.  I learned about how black holes are visible in radio telescopes but not in infrared.  I also learned the different types of black holes, such as compact, extended, and multiple.

After seven weeks of classifying these galaxies, my classmates and I had classified over 9,000 galaxies.  We were all proud of our accomplishment and of all we had learned along the way. I definitely recommend you at least try classifying on Galaxy Zoo, whether its galaxies or black holes or what have you.  Why not?  Don’t you want to say you’ve had the experience?  Would you like to contribute to our knowledge of the universe, or even do your OWN original research about the wonders around us?  If you have any of those interests, or just want to check it out because it sounds cool (and trust me, it is), definitely go to Galaxy Zoo and start classifying.

Thoughts From the Classroom: Riley & Harrison

This fourth post in our Thoughts From the Classroom series comes from Riley and Harrision.  Riley and Harrison are 8th grade students at Gate Academy and are both Galaxy Zoo volunteers.


Galaxy Zoo is a great program. It was brought to my attention when we began using Galaxy Zoo in class. It was extremely interesting because I had never seen pictures of our universe like the ones I am able to see on Galaxy Zoo. On one picture, we found an amazing spiral galaxy with such a huge level of clarity, you could even see individual stars. It just blew me away.

Galaxy Zoo is enlightening about the true scale and beauty of our universe. In the background of these immense galaxies you can see dozens of smaller galaxies, which are really just as huge as the one you’re getting a close up of. How cool is that? The structures are so massive but detailed down to the tiniest level, as demonstrated on Earth. I think that everyone should give themselves a chance to appreciate our Universe.

Galaxy Zoo really provided me with food for thought, and I recommend it strongly to anyone with the vaguest curiosity about what’s up there.


I’m Harrison, and I used Galaxy Zoo in my middle school class. We instantly loved it because, it’s the perfect combination of learning about the different types of galaxies and having fun while doing it.  Using Galaxy Zoo also gives you a feeling of helping scientific research, by helping progress our scientific understanding of the Universe. The website is user friendly allowing you to classify galaxies, check your personal account, and see other information with a click of a button. The website is interactive and awesome showing you breath-taking pictures that you get to classify. There is so much to do and you can easily be lost for hours. I would recommend Galaxy Zoo to anyone.

Snapshot Serengeti Brings Authentic Research into Undergraduate Courses

Today’s post comes from Annika Moe. Annika is a post-doctoral fellow in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota and has a background in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. She is currently working to incorporate authentic research experiences into courses for non-biology majors and incorporate learning technologies into the classroom.

 ‘What is that?” My officemate crossed the room and squinted at the image on my computer.

“Tawny-colored herbivore?” I tilted my head and considered a new angle of the extreme close-up photo before me. “Lion?”

“Mmm… wishful thinking…”

“I’m calling it a Hartebeest. They seem to always be standing around under trees.  This camera’s probably fixed to a tree” and I clicked on the “Next capture” button.

“Trotsky!” we both sang out as we watched a lone warthog plod half-ways across the screen.  We had decided it was an appropriate name for the jolly looking animal that kept appearing at a number of different camera sites. Next capture.

This went on for a couple hours as I familiarized myself with Zooniverse’s Snapshot Serengeti project.  I couldn’t stop pressing that button… Next captureNext capture…  It was addicting.  Something about this experience was transporting me across the world and tapping into a child-like sense of wonder that I hadn’t felt in a long while.

Snapshot Serengeti was a perfect fit for what I wanted to accomplish.

“Incorporate an authentic research experience into a laboratory course for non-biology majors.”  This was the charge I was given when I arrived at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2012.  With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the College of Biological Sciences had hired a group of post docs to tackle this challenge across a number of the “non-major” courses offered by the Biology Program.

With a degree in ecology and evolution, I made a beeline for BIOLOGY 1001: Ecological and Evolutionary Perspectives.  What fun! Working with my favorite student demographic (non-biology majors) on my favorite subjects!

It would be a great challenge.  This may be the only biology class these students take during their college education.  Many may believe that they have no interest in or talent for science. They could be future engineers, business leaders, teachers, politicians, computer scientists, comedians, or journalists. What do we want these students to take away from their one biology class? What is an authentic research experience, and can students authentically experience science in such a short time?

 I had recently read a paper by a group from Stanford University [1] that gave a number of suggestions for successfully integrating faculty research into undergraduate biology education. Snapshot Serengeti met some of the more challenging suggestions.

  1. Low barrier of technical expertise for students to collect data Check.  Snapshot Serengeti has an intuitive user-interface and tutorial tools. Students can learn to collect data with little to no instruction.
  2.  Established checks and balances for student-collected data Check. Snapshot Serengeti has a data quality control system of multiple identifications and ID confirmation through consensus.
  3. Diverse, but constrained set of variables for developing hypotheses Check.  The data collected by the Snapshot Serengeti project consists of a manageable number of variables and metadata associated with camera locations.  The nature of the data generally directs investigations toward asking questions about distribution patterns over time and space.
  4. Central database accessible to all students Check.  The researchers behind the Snapshot Serengeti project are led by Dr. Craig Packer, professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior and instructor of BIOL 1001 at the University of Minnesota.  The current quality-checked data set from Snapshot Serengeti is readily available to our students.

And so I prepared a six-week laboratory module in which students used the Snapshot Serengeti project to make observations and collect data, generate testable questions and investigate those questions using the combined data from all Snapshot Serengeti participants.  While it is impossible to experience all aspects of scientific research in six weeks, the module uses exploratory research and observational study to highlight a few key pieces of the process.

 The first two weeks are spent exploring, observing and wondering about Serengeti wildlife. Students read and discuss scientific papers on Serengeti ecology.  They learn about trophic dynamics and interactions through building a Serengeti food web.  Students spend time using the Snapshot Serengeti website and practice generating observations and questions from both individual photos and sets of photos across space and time.  From this pool of experiences, students draw on their own intellectual curiosity and understanding to form their research questions.

The third week introduces the students to the Snapshot Serengeti database.  Students are given instruction on how to use the data filter and graphing functions in the statistical program Jmp.  They are given time to explore the data and computer program to try and address a few testable questions given to them at the start of the lab session.  Students compare different data visualization methods and discuss their relative utility in displaying different types of data.

During the fourth and fifth weeks, students work in groups to investigate a set of their own questions, organized around a theme in Serengeti ecology.  Groups are let loose with the database and Jmp program to investigate their questions and prepare a presentation of their findings. During these two weeks, Students experience the challenge that researchers face in identifying the data that truly addresses their questions and organizing the data to test their ideas.

In the final week, groups present their research to the class and reflect on what they’ve learned about the nature of science and the research process.

During Fall of 2013, we piloted this module in 3 lab sections involving 59 students. I had no idea what the students would take away from the six weeks of working with the Snapshot Serengeti project.  The assignments were open-ended and students largely left to figure out how to address their questions without explicit instruction. I expected that they would be confused, frustrated and perhaps even angry.  I was afraid that working with a giant spreadsheet of numbers would bore them.  I was hoping for something great, but prepared for a disaster.

I was shocked by what I saw during the pilot of the module. Students were huddled over their computers for the entire two hours of each lab period, working furiously to find patterns in their data.  They were on task, engaged and asking questions.

I was even more amazed when I asked what they had learned from their experience.

They recognized the creative nature of science:

“Being a design student, art has always been a stronger subject than science [for me]. With this lab I realized the two are very similar.  The process of discovery is the same and even science takes creativity.”


“I did not realize how much trial and error [is involved] because the usual labs… had instructions for how to do them properly.  This time I was creating the process.”


 They recognized the difference between logical thought and empirical evidence:

 “I learned that most of the time your common sense thoughts are not backed up strongly by research.”

-Political Science and Philosophy

 “[I learned] that failing to find what you were looking for is still a result and happens often in science. “


They experienced the scientific method as more than a blind march through a series of steps:

“I learned it’s not as linear a process as I thought it was.  Hypotheses and conclusions change alongside the discovery of new data; it’s a fluid process.”


They recognized that the direction of research is driven by questions:

“I knew that it was really important to continually ask questions but I did not realize how integrated it was to the process or how naturally more questions appear.”


Reflecting back on some of my initial questions about what makes a research experience “authentic”, the answer really isn’t that complicated.  Scientists have the freedom pursue the questions that interest them and the freedom to follow where those questions lead. Give students the tools to ask and investigate questions, then give them the freedom to be a scientist.

Zooniverse and Snapshot Serengeti offer an amazing exploratory platform from which to awaken curiosity and dive into the scientific process.

 “Try to find out something interesting. Interest is the best motivation.”

-Actuarial math and accounting student

[1] Kloser, M.J. et al. 2011. Integrating Teaching and Research in Undergraduate Biology Laboratory Education. PLoS Biology. Vol 9:11. e1001174.

Educator Opinions Needed on Planet Hunters Educational Resources

The prospect of discovering a whole new planet in Planet Hunters is super amazing and awesome.  I sometimes refer to it as the “sexiest” outcome of any Zooniverse project (sorry lions and plankton). Here at the Zooniverse we’ve found that young people get pretty jazzed about the prospect of discovering a new world too. We want to deepen that excitement by helping students to understand the science behind the project.

Over the past year educators have been developing the Planet Hunters Educators Guide.  Specifically targeted at middle school students (11-14 year olds), this nine-lesson unit aims to help students gain an in-depth understanding of the science behind Planet Hunters. Topics addressed include the transit method of detecting exoplanets, habitable zones, working with Kepler data to determine features of the different exoplanets, and much more. Last spring we conducted a first round of teacher review of the initial set of lessons. Since then they’ve been updated and improved based on the incredibly valuable feedback provided by teachers from around the world.

We’re carrying out a second round of teacher evaluation on these the revised lessons. Care to lend us your opinion?  We need teachers to tell us what they think about these lessons and how to make them better!

The Details

  • If you’d like to help us create this educational resource please fill in this Google Form.  
  • We’ll email you directly with instructions on accessing the lessons and evaluation forms by Friday February 14th.
  • US-based teachers who complete either of the following options by 5pm CST on Wednesday March 10th will receive a $25 Amazon gift card via email. 

1.)  Pilot at least two lessons with students and complete a short feedback form for each lesson.


2.)  Read at least four lessons and complete a short feedback form for each lesson.

We welcome the opinions from educators from any country, but are only able to offer the Amazon gift card to US-based teachers due to grant restrictions.  If you have any questions please comment below or email  

Thoughts From the Classroom: Ellen

In our third Thoughts From the Classroom post, Ellen explains what citizen science is and how she liked using it during Ms. V time.

My name is Ellen, I’m 12 years old, and I just moved up to Phoenix class. I read about Citizen Science in a magazine article and thought it sounded really interesting.

With Citizen Science, you can help sort important data that scientists will use to help them study things like the ocean floor and space, find out what animals are living in Africa and where, or even by doing something as simple as taking pictures as lady bugs or taking a video of you playing with your dog, help them discover rare ladybug species and understand how humans and animals interact. Computers can’t do these things, so scientists need your help!

I was really excited to learn we would be working at a Citizen Science website for Ms.V time.  (That’s what we call our teacher’s class.)  So far I really like it, and I’m looking forward to learning more about Zooniverse. In Radio Galaxy Zoo, you help scientists find black holes (by looking for their jets) and their sources by looking at pictures of different radiation levels. My class has seen incredible shapes that makes it seem like the Universe is talking, such as a smiley face and bee made out of bright blobs of infra-red light. You’ll see huge pieces of light that look like you’re staring right into a star and streaks of infra-red radiation across space. So what are you waiting for? Check it out!

Thoughts From the Classroom: Jack and Brendan

In the second installment of Thoughts From the Classroom, we hear from Jack & Brendan two of Victoria’s 8th grade students from Gate Academy in San, Rafael, California.  We asked them to tell us  about their experience using Galaxy Zoo and Radio Galaxy Zoo in the classroom.


Hello my name is Jack and I go to Gate Academy in San Rafael, California. My classmates and I have been using Zooniverse websites, mainly Galaxy Zoo, to help us with our studies. Our class has benefited greatly from using Zooniverse websites.

Galaxy Zoo is a great site and has taught me a lot about galaxies. I went from knowing next to nothing about classifying galaxies to being able to identify a spiral or bar at only a single glance. Galaxy Zoo helped our class learn about different kinds of galaxies and how to tell if it is disturbed, or even if it has a lens or arc. If my class had not experienced Galaxy Zoo, we would all know a lot less about galaxies.

If you are a teacher and you want your students to learn about galaxies, Galaxy Zoo is a wonderful site.  I would put it at the top of my suggestion list. I hope people everywhere use this site, and that they all like it as much as I do.


My name is Brandon and I’m a middle school student at GATE Academy, San Rafael. I love soccer and programming. I want to tell a little more about my experiences with Galaxy Zoo, and its uses as an educational tool. While using Galaxy Zoo, I had a chance to learn a lot while also contributing to the Zooniverse project. For instance, black holes show up on radio telescopes but not infrared, although sometimes associated galaxies can show up on the infrared near the black hole. I learned this from Radio Galaxy Zoo, the part of Galaxy Zoo that focuses on finding black holes. While I was learning about radio telescopes and black hole jets, I realized that I was also helping add to the reserves of information that scientists can draw on during their work. Overall, I think that Galaxy Zoo can really help students learn and also helps advance science. My time with Galaxy Zoo has shown me what a wonderful universe we live in and taught me a lot in the process.  I think other students should have a chance to have that experience too.

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.

A Change in the Weather

Today’s guest blog comes from Kathy Wendolkowski. Kathy contacted the Zooniverse development group at the Adler Planetarium asking for some some education materials relating to Zooniverse and online citizen science she could share with policy makers in her school district.  We had a great conversation about using Zooniverse projects for student service learning requirements.  Kathy is an Old Weather project volunteer since 2010.  She has 3 children, one currently a sophomore in high school.  

Well, I have been on the phone for 30 minutes and now I have a headache.  I have been speaking to a very nice young woman, but it seems she is the brick wall against which I have been banging my head.  I live in Montgomery County, Maryland which has one of the best school systems in the nation.  This school system is one that requires what are known as “Student Service Learning Hours” for graduation.  SSL hours involve some form of community service, and this summer I had what I consider to be a brilliant idea – Zooniverse projects would make perfect SSL opportunities, which has led me to my headache.

The standards for SSL hours in the Montgomery County Public School system were developed 15 years ago.  These standards do not even conceive of something like the Zooniverse.  To make this happen under the current standards for SSL projects, I need a sponsoring non-profit organization, a public place to meet, and most importantly, liability insurance.  Phew… it seems I have to change the idea of what is a SSL project.  It is a good thing that I love a challenge.

I do not mean to disparage current SSL projects – any form of service is a good thing, and knowledge can come from many different sources.  The Zooniverse, though, is an ideal example of what service and learning can be.  Here, you can help find a cure for cancer or discover a new planet.  You can read the actual ships’ logs or diary entries of servicemen fighting in World War I.  I am rendered speechless (a rare occurrence!) at the opportunities for Service and Learning offered by the Zooniverse.  So, I will take two aspirin and start phoning in the morning.  (Hey, I wonder if I can get SSL hours for this project?)

Galaxy Zoo & Galaxy Zoo Navigator Student & Teacher Guides

Today’s post comes from Kate Meredith who created and recently posted the teacher and student Galaxy Zoo guides outlined here. Kate is a former middle school and high school teacher who considers herself a virtual person in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey database.  She has been involved with pilot testing, writing and training teachers to use the database for the past twelve years.  She is very excited about how the Galaxy Zoo Navigator tools can help teachers engage groups of students to use images from the SDSS in ways that are fun and accessible. 

Guides and help documents for getting started with Galaxy Zoo and the Galaxy Zoo Navigator are available now on ZooTeach.  There is something for teachers and students.

NSTA Denver – Day 2

5:45  – Woke up. Decide to swap order of presentation.

7:00 – Breakfast, it is the most important meal of the day after all.

8:00 –  Final presentation adjustments done.

8:45 – Public speaking makes me nervous sometimes so put on my favorite dress and purple tights for confidence.

9:30 –  First session of the day –  Effective Approaches for Addressing Next Generation Science Standards in the Earth and Space Science Classroom. This workshop was facilitated by members of the National Earth Science Teachers Association  (NESTA)  and began with an overview of how earth and space sciences fits in the NGSS. The presenters nicely summed up the NGSS Performance Expectations as – “involving a lot of action verbs.”  Instead of statements beginning with “students will understand” or “students will identify” these new performance expectations begin with statements  like “students who demonstrate understanding can develop and use a model to describe…” and “students who demonstrate understanding can analyze and interpret data to determine…”.

The remainder of the workshop focused on Windows to the Universe, NESTA’s learner and educator portal. There are a variety of activities available for use in the classroom. There is a yearly subscription fee if you want to download and print PDFs but activities and worksheets can be printed for free from your browser.

11:00  –  Second Session of the day –  Making the Connection Between Formal and Informal Education.  Staff from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Denver Zoo, and Denver Public Schools overviewed two long-term collaborations running in the Denver metro area. Passport to Health is a bilingual school-year program targeting at 5th graders and their families.  Through classes and events in school and at the museum, over 3,000 participants receive tools and knowledge promoting healthy living.  Urban Advantage Denver , the second program highlighted, is an in-depth collaboration between local school districts and the City of Denver’s scientific cultural institutions.  This program aims to empower every 7th grade student to think and explore like a scientist.

12:30  – Time to present.  A small but enthusiastic group of 15 came to learn about a variety of Zooniverse projects and the educational resources available to bring them into the classroom.  Sadly the internet decided to be uncooperative, but luckily I had a back-up plan and plenty of screen shots.  There were lots of great questions and contact details exchanged. I can’t say much more because I tend to suffer from “post-presenting amnesia”, but it was a great session.

2:00 – Stroll around the second half of the exhibition hall successfully found candy to temporarily relieve my hunger rage.  It was great to see the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and Cornell Lab of Ornithology promoting their excellent programs.  Totally have science education crushes on those two.

3:00 – Starving.  Back at the hotel waiting for delivery while catching up on email.

It was a great meeting, but it will be nice to be back home in Chicago.  ‘Til next time NSTA!