My brief history of Project STARWALK; the phrase “Clear Skies“; Dynamic Modeling or Kinesthetic activities; and CAA: Computer Assisted Astronomy.
Project STARWALK was a two grade level Earth/Space Science curriculum that was originally developed in 1983-84 by Patt Olmstead, Planetarium Director for the Colonial School District in New Castle Delaware. Following an extensive evaluation period the program was approved for national dissemination using a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Diffusion Network. This was a 4-year grant and at the end of the first year of dissemination the grant was turned over for management to the Lakeview Museum of Arts & Sciences in Peoria, IL.
I was hired in 1985 as Project Director (and developer) and continued the dissemination of the program for the remaining 3 years of the original grant, and then for an additional 2 years under a new NDN grant. I essentially inherited Patt’s office in the form of files and records of school contacts, and correspondence. Patt always signed her letters with “Clear Skies,” and I adopted that practice but changed it to “Clear Skies…” to sort of distinguish her’s from mine. Over the years it has been picked up and used by many people.
The original Project STARWALK program, as well as the curriculum added later, combined a series of classroom lessons and activities with a lab lesson at a Planetarium. I always described it as a “lecture/lab” where the classroom teacher did the lecture and the Planetarium educators did the lab. The lessons focused primarily on concepts relating to rotation and revolution, seasons, and the seasonal evening skies. There were a series of three lessons, one for each of the school year seasons. Classroom lessons consisted of pre and post Planetarium lab visits. At the Planetarium students were involved with observing, graphing, infering, and predicting, and learning the use of a star map.
Click here to see the brochure describing the Starwalk program (PDF).
As Director I managed the program based out of the Museum’s Planetarium – from a desk in the work room for the Planetarium actually. I shared that space with Georgia Neff and Planetarium Director Sheldon Shafer. Among my duties was to disseminate the program nationally. So, working with a network of State Facilitators, I traveled around the country attending conferences doing workshops and demonstrations of the program. This brought me to many state, regional, national, and international science educator, and technology conferences.
However the focus of the grant was to make a successful program available to other schools and Planetaria. Once arrangements were made I would conduct the 2-3 day workshop at the local Planetarium. Participants, typically educators and administrators, would be involved in learning the content as well as teaching strategies for teaching lessons that prepared students for lab lessons at the Planetarium. They did the same lessons and labs their students would do. An important component of the disemination model was the training of teachers and Planetarium Educators to be a local Project Trainer. By the end of the grant in 1990 the project had been implemented in more than 40 states and involved several thousands of students in the curriculum. The program had also been modified as had the training to meet the needs of schools using the newly evolving portable planetarium technology.
One of the strategies I used for teaching abstract concepts like Earth rotation for example was through having students model motions with their bodies. My use of this had its roots at a Planetarium conference session I once attended. There the presenter, Jeanne Bishop, was having audience members model the wavelike motion of particles – sort of like alternately taking a step standing upright and then squatting down and moving forward a step, then stand up and take a step. After that presentation a colleague, and STARWALK Trainer Katherine Becker, and I began working on ways we could improve both the teacher understanding of Earth motions as well as their students. This grew into not only into a teaching and learning strategy of using kinesthetic activities, but also became a popular workshop at NSTA conferences called “Dynamic Modeling or How to Hug the Sky”.
Over the years of the grant, as computer technology and access improved, the lessons were modified to include strategies for incorporating their use in the classroom. Technology that teachers had access to during 1985-1990, what I remember as the “dot-matrix period”, included PC and Apple computers using 5.25″, or 3.5″ floppy disks. Printshop was sort of a standard for Desktop Publishing, Apple and Terapin Logo were being taught, and we used FAX. Some software was being still sold in zip-lock baggies or ‘downloaded’ by having it arrive by postal mail. And in many instances, arriving as a large stack of floppy disks!
Since there was a wealth of Public Domain Astronomy software for the Apple computer I started collecting the programs and then eventually making them available as handouts or swaps at workshops and conferences. Among the many was one in particular written in Apple Pascal. It would output the type of information you can now get from an online ephemeride and included planet coordinate positions, rising and setting times, moon phases, and so on. From this and an equatorial star chart came the roots for what I called CAA – Computer Assisted Astronomy., the use of computers for teaching Astronomy. In those days displays were mostly text, and if there were any graphics it was usually what was called Lo-Res for low resolution. Nonetheless this became an integral component for the program for both the teacher and student use.
BBS – pre-Internet DaysWhen they became affordable we used a 300 baud modem and communicated with each other by logging into a local Freenet BBS if available or by long-distance to the Big Sky BBS Freenet in Montana. Locally I had access to the Heartland Freenet at Bradley University, one of a few BBS nationwide that was connected via Telnet. So for me it was a local call for a dial-up connection, however the connection between BBS on the Freenet system was more or less like today’s average Internet broadband speeds. Imagine watching a file transfer from Montana to Illinois in seconds and then take many many minutes for the download to my computer at 300 baud!
At my desk was an Apple IIc computer with a pair of 3.5 and 5.25 inch floppy drives, and a dot-matrix printer. I installed a CPM card that had an adiitional 768kb which adding to the bult-in 256kb gave me a whopping 1Mb of RAM! I would often copy the contents of a floppy disk to the CPM card and use it as a RAM drive. When I traveled I would lug along the IIc and its brick-sized AC adapter as well as a flat LCD display that I would place on an overhead projector to project the computer display.
Project STARWALK, as a funded program ended in 1990, the same year I was hired by the Kansas City Missouri School District as their first Planetarium Director. I brought STARWALK with me to become part of the repertoire of lessons I could offer the school district and the surrounding metropolitan area. The Planetarium closed in 1998 when Southwest HS, the school attached to the Planetarium, was closed for budget reasons.
Southwest HS reopened in 2007 as did the Planetarium when I was re-hired. Again due to budget reasons the Planetarium closed during the summer of 2010, but has since reopened as a movie theater operated by computer techs from the district IT department.
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.