DIY Universe: Empowering OST Organizations and All Educators to Use NASA’s Universe of Learning Resources by Dr. Irene Porro

Out-of-School Time (OST) organizations play a vital role in our education system by providing youth with ways of discovering and exploring the world of STEM that complement the learning they experience during the school day. But OST programs often face hurdles in implementation, particularly when educators charged with facilitation may lack a strong background in the subject matter.

 We kept these educators foremost in our minds while designing DIY Universe, a new way of engaging with research findings and data from NASA’s Great Observatories and other major NASA astrophysics missions, developed by the Christa McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning at Framingham State University. DIY Universe is an online program for middle and high school youth and their educators, designed for OST settings, but available to educators and parents to use in any learning environment.

The goal of DIY Universe is to give OST educators—no matter what their background in Earth and space science concepts is—a robust, yet flexible, pedagogical scaffolding that allows them to facilitate meaningful learning experiences with their youth. This approach aims to remove the barriers that often discourage OST educators from effectively implementing NASA materials and other high-quality resources, and to lower the probability of introducing misconceptions.

By using DIY Universe, youth can develop their own understanding of how our universe works, motivated by the challenge to share their own knowledge through a personalized exhibit they create. Before OST educators guide their youth through the DIY Universe program, however, they must develop some confidence with its compendium of selected NASA Universe of Learning (UoL) online reference materials. Confidence is borne of competence, and this need can be addressed with scaffolding in the form of “Road Maps” for both educators and youth.

The program is designed to offer OST educators access to NASA’s UoL materials, while providing guidance on what resources to use and how. Road Maps facilitate a structured and tailored investigation of the main themes that are the focus of NASA’s UoL: Life and Death of Stars, Origin/History of the Universe, and Other Solar Systems/Other Earths. Each Road Map follows an accessible and age-appropriate learning task sequence that leaves plenty of room for personal exploration.

DIY Universe implements aspects of all three pillars of NGSS’s three-dimensional learning model. Science and Engineering Practices, including obtaining, evaluating, and communicating data, are essential to the work that culminates with a well-designed exhibit. Crosscutting concepts such as stability and change, energy and matter, and systems and system models are explored in the context of each of the program’s main science themes, as are the Disciplinary Core Ideas, which address the content knowledge associated with physics, astronomy, and astrobiology.

“Tool Kits”—one for youth and another, more comprehensive one for educators—complement the Road Maps by providing a selection of NASA resources that introduce the specific science themes and foundational tools needed to develop the project. Once youth choose a theme, the Road Map specific to that theme guides them in the step-by-step creation of a unique and very personalized exhibit they can proudly share with family and friends.

Resources provided within DIY Universe include data and images from Chandra X-ray Observatory, Solar Dynamic Observatory, and Hubble Space Telescope, and other science resources made available through several NASA websites, including Space Place, Exoplanet Exploration, Universe Unplugged, Imagine the Universe, and ViewSpace.

OST educators gain access to other powerful STEM resources through DIY Universe as well, including the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network operated by the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA), the extensive resource guide from Girls STEM Ahead, and video resources from PBS Learning Media/NOVA Labs Collection.

The McAuliffe Center will begin disseminating the program through national OST networks, statewide afterschool networks, and the national network of Challenger Learning Centers, of which the McAuliffe Center is a member. It is currently being introduced to several regular partners of the McAuliffe Center, including Massachusetts-based sites of Girls Inc. and Massachusetts Boys and Girls Clubs. Ultimately, the center will share the program through its membership in NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Museum Alliance, which will make the website available to both museums and traditional OST sites and at the NSTA Boston National Conference in April 2020.

DIY Universe was developed over two years by McAuliffe Center staff and Framingham State University interns, who researched the materials, provided feedback on the scaffolding of the activities, and designed the website and logo. The interns were supervised by project coordinator Dr. Julia Abbott, with support from McAuliffe Center Project Manager Evan Pagliuca. Dr. Irene Porro served as the director and subject-matter expert for this project. Work on the DIY Universe project is supported by NASA’s Universe of Learning, which is funded by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A.

Dr. Irene Porro is the director of the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center at Framingham State University. The center was established by McAuliffe’s alma mater to honor her commitment to future generations through teaching. Today, the center’s mission is to be a leader in developing opportunities for integrated STEM learning through the sharing of resources, building of partnerships, and advancement of best educational practices.

A native of Torino, Italy, Porro received her PhD in Space Science and Technology from the University of Padova, Italy. Before entering the field of education, she was a researcher in astrophysics at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Max Planck Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, Germany. She then joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she served as director of the Education and Outreach Group of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Note: This article is featured in the October issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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