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Science After School (SAS) Consumers Guide  

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Afterschool Universe

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Peter Guttmacher

NASA’s Afterschool Universe is a 12 session set of astronomy curriculum, activities and resources designed for middle school students. Unlike other astronomy afterschool programs which primarily focus on rudimentary concepts around planets, stars, orbits, constellations, and distance, Afterschool Universe actually introduces young people to concepts in astrophysics. While the subject itself is fairly abstract, the curriculum offers an impressive variety of hands-on activities which will appeal to kinesthetic learners as well as great images and posters to inspire visual learners. It also includes ample opportunity for discussion, individual, small and large group work, as well as the chance to build and use telescopes and spectroscopes.

For instructors, NASA's comprehensive teaching manual is surprisingly easy to use, unsurprisingly scientifically solid, step-by-step in its approach, and full of fantastic visuals. It provides the kind of support that will allow those who may not have a formal science background, but who are interested in science and experimentation, to feel comfortable exploring and discussing the greatest of science mysteries – the universe around us.
Full Review:
NASA’s Afterschool Universe is a 12 session set of astronomy curriculum, activities and resources designed for use with middle school students. Unlike other astronomy afterschool programs that primarily focus on rudimentary concepts such as planets, stars, orbits, constellations, and distance, Afterschool Universe actually introduces young people to concepts in astrophysics. While the subject itself is fairly abstract, the curriculum offers an impressive variety of hands-on activities that will appeal to kinesthetic learners as well as great images and posters to inspire visual learners. It also includes ample opportunity for discussion, individual, small and large group work, as well as the chance to build and use telescopes, spectroscopes and solar powered audio systems.

The 12 45-50-minute sessions cover the following topics:
  1. Modeling the Universe
  2. Cosmic Survey
  3. The Astronomer’s Toolbox – Telescopes
  4. Invisible Light
  5. The Astronomer’s Toolbox – Spectroscopes
  6. Stars and Their Lives (Part 1)
  7. Stars and Their Lives (Part 2)
  8. Our Cosmic Connection to the Elements
  9. Galaxies
  10. Black Holes
  11. Visit from a (Space) Scientist + Making a Cosmic Quilt
  12. Modeling the Universe – The sequel
I see many very useful elements in this set of materials. The program’s strengths include:
  • The science is accurate and compelling as one would expect from NASA without being overwhelming or data happy.
  • Sessions can be used sequentially or as stand-alone and require only moderate set-up time.
  • The overall structure offers young people both big picture and detail work. The chance to model their concepts of the universe both at the beginning and at the end of the session sequence, creates the opportunity for reflection on knowledge gained and concepts changed.
  • The instructor manual is impressively comprehensive and is accessible to youth workers with little or no formal science background. Each session is comprised of…
    1. Overall description of the unit
    2. Unit objectives
    3. A list of concepts addressed
    4. A list of materials needed
    5. Other requirements for the activities
    6. Background on the activities
    7. A session overview
    8. Activity preparation instructions
    9. The activity itself in a detailed and easy-to-follow step-by-step sequence.
    10. Suggestions for discussion focus and common misconceptions to be aware of.
    11. Website links the provide additional background and activity extensions
  • Each session in the manual contains easily reproducible worksheets.
  • While NASA does offer periodic trainings on Afterschool Universe, at conferences, the curriculum can be implemented without training.
Materials needed for Afterschool Universe activities come to less than $500, $150 of which is consumable while the remaining parts can be used repeatedly. Most of the materials required are easily found or purchased (supermarkets, hardware stores, office supply and craft stores etc…). They include such items as dried beans, copper tubing, postage stamps, paper towel rolls, Styrofoam balls, foil, a digital camera, soda cans, etc… The manual provides specific websites and product numbers for where the few more technical items can be ordered. They include items such as hot plates, scales, refraction grating, UV beads and light, telescope kits, solar cells, amplifiers and cable.

Afterschool Universe will benefit instructors in several ways. It takes a seemingly remote area of science and makes it immediate and interesting to learners. It provides a secure enough structure that, after using teaching it, instructors may well feel more comfortable with experimentation and making abstract concepts tangible. And with website links to further resources and extension activities on session topics, the curriculum can also serve as a springboard to further exploration for interested students.

This is not a light-weight drop-in program. Instructors will need to have an interest in science, a love of exploration and experimentation, and must participate in training (either in Greenbelt, MD at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center or from a locally certified Afterschool Universe trainer) in order to use these materials. They will also need to invest some time in shopping for and otherwise gathering supplies. However Afterschool Universe, is well worth the effort. It takes a serious and cosmically complex field of science and explores it in a way that both flows and engages. Young people get to DO here and gain a tangible understanding of BIG mind-expanding concepts (like how our own bodies are connected to the elements of infinite space or how black holes really operate) as well as cool science specifics (like how astronomers are able to determine the composition of stars from millions of light years away and how we transform solar energy to the other energies that fuel our planet). It’s the best astronomy program for this age group that I have come across.