Science

How the Webb Telescope Can Take Students Back a Long Time Ago, to Galaxies Far, Far Away

By Alyson Klein — July 21, 2022 5 min read
This image released by NASA on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, shows the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA.
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When the James Webb Space Telescope officially launched Dec. 25, it was a literal and figurative Christmas morning for Jennifer Basalari and about a dozen and half students, who took a break from opening presents to watch the launch together in an online video platform.

The excitement for Webb had been building in Basalari’s classroom since 2016, when she and other teachers visited a Northrop Grumman laboratory and saw part of the telescope under construction.

That experience, “completely sucked me in,” said Basalari, who teaches 5th grade STEM classes at Lakemont Elementary School in central Florida. She already is building a science unit for next year around Webb’s images, which NASA began releasing a little more than a week ago.

The telescope will change “what we understand about science, what we know about black holes and what we know about the beginning of stars and life and potentially the Big Bang,” she told her students.

Her enthusiasm has been so infectious that about a third of the kids joining her that morning were former students, who wanted to experience Webb’s launch with the teacher who had gotten them so jazzed about the project.

Though pictures—let alone teaching resources—from Webb are only beginning to emerge, Basalari predicts that educators around the country will make use of the show-stopping images to teach not just about astronomy, but about the scientific method, and how a big project comes together.

“Those images are going to be kind of the hook, because I don’t care who you are, if you’re looking at an image of space, especially new ones that haven’t been seen, 99 percent of people are intrigued and interested in that,” she said.

A powerful tool for teaching science

The Webb telescope, the most powerful ever built, enables scientists to see parts of the universe as they were about 200 million years after the Big Bang, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. That’s fairly close to the beginning of time, given that the universe is projected to be more than 13 billion years old. Through the images, scientists—and schoolchildren—can glimpse some of the earliest galaxies ever formed.

The concept can be overwhelming to seasoned scientists, much less 7th graders.

One place to start helping students wrap their minds around it: an explainer included with teacher resources created by the NASA.

It gives students an understanding of the size of the telescope—it’s as tall as a three-story building and as long as a tennis court—as well as its mission. (Yes, it is indeed hunting for planets with conditions that may support life as we know it.)

Another resource: Basalari has shown her students a documentary, produced by Northrop Grumman called “Into the Unknown” which tells the story of Webb’s creation. It offers students a real-life window into how mistakes and miscalculations inform discovery and invention.

“You’re not always going to be right. It’s OK to be wrong and go back and fix it,” she tells her class. Building the telescope took more than 20 years—longer than her students have been alive—because the scientists and engineers “had to go back and modify and redesign” when something initially didn’t work as expected.

The Webb telescope uses infrared cameras, which can see through the dust clouds in the universe, where new stars and planets form.

That gives teachers “an excuse to bring in [the topic of] infrared radiation and learn about how it works and demonstrate, for example, that there are literally colors you cannot see,” said Jeff Adkins, who teaches astronomy and physics at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, Calif., outside San Francisco.

He’s been looking at a NASA resource entitled “High School Experiments with Infrared Astronomy,” which, among other things, offers some real world applications for calculus and Algebra.

And Adkins is on the lookout for “deep field images” from the telescope—essentially pictures of empty space—that his students may be able to use to count galaxies in a particular area, with the ultimate goal of coming up with a crude estimate of how many galaxies there are in the universe.

Inspiring students and capturing their imagination

The telescope also is bringing back new images of planets beyond those identified in Earth’s solar system. So Greg Flick, a 9th-grade science teacher in North Syracuse, N.Y., wants to send his students, some of whom are obsessed with science fiction franchises like Star Wars, planet-hunting.

He’s looking for data sets that scientists used to pinpoint new planets. He’ll make them user-friendly for his classes, allowing students to try and replicate the professionals’ work.

“Hopefully it will engender the same sense of discovery that the actual scientists [have] when they actually find something,” said Flick. Like Basalari, he got to see part of Webb’s construction, in his case at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Flick, who is part of NASA’s Solar System Ambassadors, a public education program, said the agency typically has excellent materials for teachers. NASA has already posted some materials on Webb, but for now, “there’s not a lot out there” just yet because the telescope is only beginning to send back images that will inform years of scientific inquiry.

The imagination-capturing pictures are part of the Webb’s program of letting, “the world know ‘we’re up and running,’” he said. “And I’m grateful for that and follow it avidly.”

One figure that may be as inspiring to some students as those otherworldly images: Gregory Robinson, the Webb program director who has been credited with bringing the project to fruition after years of delays and budgetary issues. Robinson, who is Black, is the ninth of 11 children, born to sharecroppers in rural Danville, Va. He grew up in a largely segregated South.

“I do think he will be joining the ranks of those scientists that are held up” for K-12 students, said Christine Royce, a professor of teacher education at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and a past president of the National Science Teaching Association.

Royce is hoping that will happen “as soon as possible,” she said. “We often just think about scientists after the fact. We’re beginning to try and be more cognizant of talking about current scientists,” particularly those from diverse backgrounds.

“It is important for students to see people who look like them” doing groundbreaking work, she said. Robinson has spoken about his own K-12 experience, crediting his teachers, parents, and church for telling him he could do anything he wanted if he got an education.

That message needs to be championed along with the space images Robinson helped make possible, Royce said. “I think it’s important for kids to hear, for teachers to repeat, for [that] information to be shared.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 17, 2022 edition of Education Week as How the Webb Telescope Can Take Students Back a Long Time Ago, to Galaxies Far, Far Away

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