Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Astronomy for Everyone

The push for diversity in science comes in many different areas. Gender and race are perhaps the most familiar examples, and there remains a great deal of room for improvement in these areas. This blog post covers an area − neurological makeup − that receives less attention, partly because the differences are often not obvious. A push for diversity in this area can be framed by the following important question: how can we show children that people can have successful careers in science despite experiencing some neurological challenges?

An excellent answer to this question was provided by a neurodiversity workshop for high school students held at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), my home institution, at the end of April 2014. The workshop was called Astronomy for Everyone and was superbly organized by Smadar Naoz and Matt Schneps. An invitation was extended to high school students with Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and/or Autism Spectrum Disorders.
The goal of the workshop was to "encourage neurodiversed high schoolers that the academic path is open for them, and to share tips to help overcome obstacles that they may encounter in their way", as stated on the workshop’s webpage. The workshop involved a full day visit to CfA to learn about careers in astronomy. An outgrowth of the work Schneps and his colleagues initiated at the Laboratory for Visual Learning at CfA, with funding from the Smithsonian Youth Access Grant program and the National Science Foundation, this was the second in a series of such programs.

Matt Schneps introducing the Astronomy for Everyone workshop. Credit: Nina Zonnevylle.

Inspired by the people I know with neurological challenges, I volunteered to help and was assigned to lead one of the four subgroups the students were divided into, along with their parents. My main job was to make sure the group made it to the different talks and sessions scattered throughout the maze-like building that is CfA. 

After registration and refreshments, the program began with a talk by Josh Grindlay, a Harvard professor, about the plate digitization program that he has led, called the "Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard" project, or DASCH. This is a terrific program enabling astronomers to look at the variability of astronomical objects over more than a century, a much longer timescale than usually available. Josh’s talk was a perfect way to start the day and it quickly became clear from the question and answer session that the students and their parents were enthusiastic about astronomy and astrophysics. Later in the day other groups were able to visit the DASCH lab to see where the astronomical plates are scanned, but this was the one activity my group missed (because of time-limits each group missed one activity).

Josh Grindlay talking about the DASCH program he has led.  Credit: Nina Zonnevylle.

Also included in the program were a couple of short talks by graduate students in the Harvard astronomy department. Sarah Willis and Wen-fai Fong both gave interesting and enthusiastic presentations about their lives as students, including details about their background and what they enjoyed about doing research.

The final session before lunch involved a visit to the solar lab located in the basement, a hidden gem at CfA. Henry (“Trae”) Winter gave a great talk that included stunning movies of flares on the Sun, using a video wall containing 5,760 by 3,240 pixels. The data he showed was from the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) suite of telescopes on the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite. You can see some examples of AIA images and movies on their gallery webpage.

Trae's talk inspired a bunch of questions from the students, causing the session that had already started late to run over time. This resulted in a minor dilemma for me. Although I was very happy to see so many questions from the students, I noticed that the window for lunch was getting shorter and shorter, and I reluctantly interrupted the Q&A session to point out that we needed to eat and drink.

Trae Winter talking about our active Sun, using his lab's video wall.  Credit: Nina Zonnevylle.

In the afternoon, Bruce Ward gave a very good talk about the Great Refractor Telescope at CfA, located just a few feet down the hall from my office. After being installed in 1847, the Great Refractor was the largest telescope in the United States for 20 years and was “the most significant American astronomical instrument and equal to the finest in the world”, according to the Harvard College Observatory.

The Great Refractor Telescope at CfA.  Credit: Harvard College Observatory.

Afterwards, Smadar and another astronomer gave presentations about their own personal stories. These were private discussions and I didn't attend, but I'm sure that they provided valuable insight into the challenges that neurodiversed astronomers can face, and the successes that they can achieve.

Later in the afternoon, Matt Schneps gave an excellent presentation about how technology can be used to help overcome neurological challenges. Examples he gave included the use of voice recognition software to compose text, and use of the "reader" option in the Safari web browser to simplify the information presented in a webpage.

The day finished with group discussion, where the kids and their parents met separately to discuss their experiences and provide encouragement to each other.

I could tell from my own observations and my conversations with students and parents that the workshop was a success. This impression was confirmed by the feedback that the students and parents provided via a survey and email. Here is some feedback from the students:

"I have never seen a workshop like this specially paying attention on children like me supporting and guiding them throughout the day. Spending a day with such brilliant people was not only a great experience for me, but I learned a lot from it."

"I always live this hope that my future is getting built up for a purpose trying to stay happy always, but I have to say this workshop really boosted up that spirit as now I am confident for sure that my future is awesome."

and some feedback from the parents:

"Very useful in that it gave another example of how the challenges discussed can be overcome, struck a cord with my daughter due to several connections/similarities."

"I left feeling very inspired and encouraged about my son's future."

It was gratifying to help, even in a small way, with a program that was clearly inspiring to students and their parents. Much of the work I do in public affairs for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is less personal, involving press and image releases that indirectly reach large audiences, so it’s rewarding to work with a small group and see that a few hours of outreach can make a big difference to a student’s life.  

Smadar Naoz introducing the Astronomy for Everyone workshop.  Credit: Nina Zonnevylle.

What does the future hold for the Astronomy for Everyone program? Smadar Naoz has moved to the University of California, Los Angeles and plans to run the program there. Her long-term plans are bigger than that, as she wants to influence as many people as possible. She would like to expand the program in scope so it is run at multiple institutions in different parts of the country. Her really long-term goal is to do an integration day across the country and even across continents.

Matt Schneps has also relocated from CfA and is now at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and at UMass Boston, focusing his energy full time to programs designed to support cognitively diverse communities of learning. There, he and his team are doing research to identify new ways technology can be used to broaden access, and increase the inclusion of people with neurocognitive differences in challenging careers such as science.

I’ll finish by thanking Smadar and Matt for doing such a good job at organizing the workshop and making it easy for volunteers like me. Special thanks go to Avi Loeb for hosting and funding the workshop through the CfA’s Institute for Theory and Computation, and Nina Zonnevylle for helping out with the logistics. I’d also like to thank all of the other people who volunteered to help out, whether by giving talks or helping shepherd people through CfA or helping with the lunch and refreshments.