06/07/2004 07:00:00

Caltech/MIT Observatory Receives Funds for Public Education Program and Exhibits

PASADENA, Calif. — The National Science Foundation has announced a $5 million, five-year cooperative agreement with the California Institute of Technology and its partners in educational outreach to establish an Educational Outreach Center as an integral part of the NSF-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana.

The center will support programs that communicate LIGO-related science concepts to the public, strengthen regional pre-service and in-service science teaching, and reach a broad audience of students in Louisiana and beyond.

The project brings together an alliance that includes research scientists from the LIGO Livingston Observatory, Caltech, and MIT, as well as educators from the Colleges of Education and Sciences at Southern University in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Systemic Initiatives, headed by the Louisiana Board of Regents and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Exploratorium of San Francisco. The partners provide expertise specific to LIGO science, experience in exhibit development, and exhibit-based teaching, connections to teacher development, and access to a statewide community of public schools.

The five-year project plan includes a series of 38 Exploratorium interactive exhibits designed to engage a broad spectrum of learners by demonstrating physical science principles related to LIGO science. The project will draw upon the Exploratorium's history and expertise in using the exhibits as engaging curriculum for teacher-development programs as well as for students and visitors.

Direct detection of gravitational radiation, the ripples in space-time produced by distant cosmic cataclysms, is one of the most exciting pursuits under way in experimental physics. "The potential payoffs are magnificent," says Barry Barish, LIGO director and Linde Professor of Physics at Caltech. "Messenger gravitational waves may reveal secrets central to many questions of great interest to astrophysicists, such as mechanisms describing the coalescence of binary neutron stars, the collision of black holes, and the remnant gravitational wave signals from the early universe."

The Educational Outreach Center will tell the public the story that motivates this scientific endeavor, using exhibits and materials that reinforce public understanding of basic scientific principles.

According to LIGO deputy director Stan Whitcomb, it will help people understand how they can easily explore fundamental science concepts. "People who visit the center will learn how these concepts relate to and lead to cutting-edge scientific research endeavors. The center will help us reach and inspire educators and families who are teaching the nation's future scientists and engineers."

NSF program director Beverly Berger pointed out the distinctive nature of the collaboration. "We are pleased to see this unique partnership develop among research scientists, museum educators, formal educators, and networks of local educators from the Livingston region. Together, they will make connections between science, the research at LIGO, and the surrounding community."

A principal feature of the project is the partnering of LIGO with Southern University's College of Education and College of Sciences to develop programs that will enhance the preparation of pre-service science teachers and contribute to the professional development of in-service teachers.

"By focusing our efforts on students and teachers, we position ourselves to significantly improve the level of science literacy throughout future generations," said Steve McGuire, a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, and Southern University professor and chair, Department of Physics. Southern University is the flagship campus of the only Historically Black College and University system in the country, and has extensive experience and expertise in producing science and mathematics education majors.

The Louisiana Systemic Initiatives, originally launched with NSF funding, will connect underserved students and teachers with the outreach center and its related programs. The partnership creates a national model for how universities, school districts, and informal learning environments can work together to motivate student and teacher learning, and support inquiry-based teaching and learning practices. According to the Exploratorium's Bronwyn Bevan, the Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS), an NSF-funded center for learning and teaching at the Exploratorium, will share this partnership model with a broad range of museums, universities, and school systems collaborating in CILS. "This project allows us to explore, in particular, the potential of informal science institutions for creating windows into the world of cutting edge science research."

Louisiana Board of Regents' Kerry Davidson adds, "Louisiana Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (LA GEAR UP) will address both by disseminating LIGO outreach center best practices through participation in statewide, regional and national GEAR UP workshops and conferences. The program will cause fundamental change in Southern University's emphasis in preparation and professional development for both current and future Louisiana science teachers--an outcome with long-term and broad consequences."

LIGO's Local Educator Network at Livingston Observatory, established in 2002, will involve participant educators from Louisiana and Mississippi in each step of the proposed activities: planning, development, implementation, and evaluation. Discussions are in progress with Louisiana Art and Science Museum in Baton Rouge on the collaborative development of hands-on LIGO science exhibits and demonstrations. "LIGO-related resources will ultimately reach and serve an extensive population of lifelong learners," says Mike Zucker, LIGO Livingston Observatory head. "We are amazed at the level of interest already demonstrated by people of all ages in this community. This facility and related programs will greatly aid us in serving their educational needs."

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Written by Jill Perry