An Unexpected Tour of the Night Sky at the 8th Grade Formal

On the night of Friday, June 14th, the middle school where I work was hosting the annual 8th grade formal. I originally did not intend on going. During my previous two years here, I had never attended this event. However, on the day of the dance many of the students asked if I was going to be attending and I started feeling a nagging at my heart. You see, I teach 6th and 8th grade chorus, and also have some interactions with 7th graders beyond saying hello in the hallway – if they are involved in the musical theater productions, for example, in which I teach the music. This graduating 8th grade class was my first 6th grade class. We started in this building at the same time and have been traveling in tandem for three years, but now they are moving on and I remain… Ok, I need to stop myself; this is not really what this particular blog post is about – the reflections of my first three years and this class will come in another post. I must save the sentimentalities for a later time. Rather, I merely wanted to inform you, the reader, of my dilemma in whether to attend or not, particularly when I already had other plans for that night.

Well, I went. And I had a blast. My students were quite excited that I showed up. The fellas were mostly wearing shirts and ties, although some wore vests and even a few suits. The young ladies were decked out in prom-like attire, many with their hair done, fancy shoes, sparkling dresses, etc. Another teacher and I had a dance-off, which the kids found quite amusing. (In case you were wondering, I won with an execution of “The worm.” The kids came up after and said, “Mr. Starr, I didn’t know you could dance like that?!” My body didn’t know either, and my thighs in particular claimed otherwise while doing the Russian Cossack dance. Yeah, I’m out of shape… moving on!)

All too soon, 10 pm arrived and the event drew to a close. Students started pouring out of the gymnasium. A few of my students remained with one of their mothers. It was a gorgeous night: the Moon was a glorious waxing crescent, Saturn was high and mighty, many stars were visible even as we were bathed in the lights of the school. While I talk quite a bit about astronomy in the classroom, rarely do I ever actually have an opportunity to put it in the context of an actual nigh sky. Chances like these are few and far between, so I grabbed it by the horns.

I walked up to B, G, A, and A’s mother (I will not use their actual names) and said, “Hey guys, can I nerd out with you for a minute?” “Sure!” was their response. I told them to look at the Moon. I said, “Notice how you can actually see the dark side of the Moon?” They looked for a moment and when their eyes adjusted accordingly they agreed that, whoah, they could totally see it. I went on to explain Earthshine, how it works, and such.

Afterwards, we looked around for a moment in silence taking it all in. B said, “Is that Polaris? The North Star?” pointing at a star in the Northern skies. I said “Let’s find out.” I showed her the Big Dipper, which stood quite prominently on the tip of its bowl rim. I told her to draw a line from the 2 stars forming the right side of the bowl (I did not use the names Merak and Dubhe) and they would lead to Polaris. The math teacher with whom I had previously had a dance-off (he got served), Mr. M, used to want to be an astronomer and is still a wealth of knowledge. He walked over to our collective and seeing us star-gazing asked me, “Are you following the arc to Arcturus?” We laughed knowingly; the kids looked quizzical. Returning to the Big Dipper, I led them to the handle and told them how the middle star of the handle was actually 2 stars, Mizar and Alcor – well, not actually 2 stars as there are binary systems and such that make the total 6, but that wasn’t what was important at the moment. What I wanted to impart upon them was that there are indeed two stars that are visible to some people, and how ancient armies and cultures used the ability to resolve the two stars as a test of excellent vision. A thought that was a really clever idea on their part.

Next on the sky-tour was Saturn. They stared for a few moments in silence, seemingly awed. I like to imagine that they were trying to picture the rings in their minds’ eyes, maybe even dreaming that if they squinted hard enough they’d just eek out a hint of the disc.

Suddenly, something caught my eye. It was moving pretty quickly against the background of the unchanging stars. Was it…? I hurriedly pulled out my iPhone, opened up the Star Walk app, did a search, and found it to be so. No. Friggin’. Way. On this night of all possible nights, when I just happened to be outside with a handful of students giving a brief tour of the night sky for an extremely narrow window of time, the International Space Station was passing over head. I excitedly called their attention to it. The two assistant principals saw us staring up and our palpable exhilaration and asked at what were we looking. When I told them, they were first shocked that it could be seen, which was followed by a chorus of, “I see it! There it is! Where, I don’t see it?! Oh I found it!” Someone else came over and asked what we were looking at. “People in space,” I said, without turning to see who asked. I then suggested, “Let’s wave to the men and women in the ISS, in space.” And we did. As if the pleasure of sharing my passion for the universe with my students within the actual context of the night sky wasn’t enough, the thrilling surprise of the ISS passing overhead certainly made the evening that much more special.

I went to the 8th grade formal with the purpose of celebrating the bittersweetness of my students moving up and on to the next stage of their lives, another milestone in a list of many this year – their last performance in the middle school play, their last chorus concert as middle schoolers, their last day of classes in these hallowed halls, etc. What I got instead was the opportunity to bask in the wonder of the universe with these students, even if for but a few moments.

What a gift for these students at the culmination of their middle school careers, standing on the doorstep of their uncharted futures, to be reminded of the audacity of the human imagination, and the eternal endeavor of exploration.


A motley crew of star-gazers.

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A Student’s Entry in My Yearbook

Every year since I started teaching I have purchased a yearbook and had kids sign it – mostly children of the graduating class, which for me as a middle school teacher means 8th graders.

My job, if you didn’t know, specifically entails teaching two full-sized chorus classes (6th grade and 8th grade), and small sectional lessons in which the children are pulled out of another class during the day for more focused, individualized attention. It is in these sectionals where a lot of the learning of individual voice parts takes place; 10 sopranos can really focus on their pitches and rhythms without being distracted by the differing voices of the baritones and altos, for example. It is known amongst my students (and colleagues) that I am very into astronomy and the sciences in general. My students are also well aware that there will undoubtedly be times during these lessons where I will go off on an astronomical tangent. Perhaps I will mention which planets are visible on that night, I’ll describe to them the distance to the Sun in terms of how long its light takes to reach us – something children often take for granted believing that whatever they see is occurring at that moment, or I will show recent photos I have taken through my telescope of the Moon or visible planets.

Which brings us back to my yearbook. There are plenty of comments that are, for lack of a better word, typical for my book. I get a lot of “Your the best teacher eva!” (spelling accurately depicted), “I had so much fun this year,” “I’m going to miss you,” “Please come work at the high school,” “You were my favorite teacher,” etc. I don’t say these things to sound boastful; I put a lot of thought and energy into being relatable, fun, keeping the class lively, positive, and interesting. When I read a history of the Scottish folk song we were learning to sing at the time, Skye Boat Song, I read the entire piece in a Scottish accent. I play current songs on the piano. I want my kids to enjoy singing, to want to sing. My room is a Safe Space where kids can come if they’re sad, scared, angry, etc. Anyway, the point is that the comments are typically positive expressions about the music, the class, and/or me.

So as I was reading through some of my students’ entries, I was deeply touched and moved when I got to a particular excerpt, which I photographed and pasted below:Image

Students, as well as parents, have told me of the impact I have had on their appreciation of music, of how they were planning on quitting music but then had me as a teacher, on how I was positive male role model, etc. But this was the first time that I ever was told specifically that I changed a child’s perception of the universe in which they live, that I opened their eyes to the wonders of the night sky.

I certainly hope it is not the last.

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Happy Birthday To Me

On June 4th, I turned 30. Please, hold your applause. I tell you this because my family came over to celebrate by having dinner and dessert. After dessert, I wanted to partake in one of my favorite activities – astrophotography. I just received a new (used, but new for me!) DSLR for the big day and was anxious to check it out. And what received what I thought was one of the best gifts I could – a clear sky! My brother had yet to see my new CG-5 mount so he observed me setting it up. I was using a 2-star alignment. I described what I was doing as I was doing it – why I was aligning, which stars I was aligning to, showing him how I chose the stars on the hand controller etc.

My brother is a student of classical history and literature. He has a very strong preference of Ancient Greek over Latin, if you were curious, which I’m guessing you weren’t. Anyway, as I told him that I was aligning to Pollux, he began to expound upon the meaning and literary significance of the characters Castor and Pollux. Later on, he wrote about the experience on his blog, thereby giving me one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received from him. I encourage you to please read it. You won’t be sorry.

“Gemini” by David Starr (@Herkolaos) via

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Insights Into Dark Matter: by Katherine J. Mack

Hints and Signals from Astrophysics

My Twitter-friend, astrophysicist and fellow dog-enthusiast, Katie Mack, recently presented at the Joint CoEPP and CASSTRO Conference in Melbourne Australia on matters of the elusive Dark Matter. The following is the slideshow she presented with an audio track similar to the actual presentation she gave (in other words, it was not recorded at the conference). I present it here in the hopes that more people will see it. I hope you enjoy it! I certainly did. Learning about these things just fills my head with more questions, revealing how much both the collectively we and to a much larger extent, I, know about the universe.

There is a link below the presentation to the original site on which she posted the slideshow. And without further ado, Dr. Mack:

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3/16/13 – Science Olympiads at Kellenberg Memorial High School

On Saturday, March 16, I was a judge for my school district’s region of Science Olympiads. And it was awesome. But before I discuss the particulars of my experience, I’m first going to tell you how this came to pass.

The Earth Science teacher in my school, Dina Ditrano, is the Regional Coordinator of our region’s Division B (middle school) Science Olympiad.  We frequently talk science at school so she is aware of my keen interest in the various fields thereof. A few months back, she asked me if I would like to be a judge for one of the events at this tournament: Sounds of Music. The music teacher and science fan gets to judge the science of sound event? Suh-weeeet! In this event, teams of 2 students each have to construct two instruments and play a scale, a mandatory piece of music (the melody from Dvořák’s 9th Symphony) and a piece of their own choosing on said instruments. They are scored on a variety of criteria including musical, creative, and technical aspects as well their knowledge of their instruments and the physics of sound. More details can be viewed on the website. It was settled. I was in.

Impostor Syndrome

Naturally, leading up to the event my impostor syndrome kicked in. What do I know/remember about the physics of sound? Sure I took a class in undergrad called Tuning and Temperament (which was awesome) in which we discussed at length the mathematical relationships between different harmonics, scales of various temperaments through musical history (such as Pythagorean tuning, well temperament, and equal temperament) and saw the advantages/disadvantages thereof. I also took a research class in graduate school in which we examined the physics of sound waves, harmonic properties of various instruments, the mechanics of the ear and more. But that was ages ago (wow, way to make myself feel old…). These kids are studying this stuff now (or at least I imagined they were if they were to be participating in this event). And I’m not science teacher. And I’m not familiar with Science Olympiads. What if I blew it? And after all the hard work the kids put in, to boot!? All I could do was be as prepared as possible; do the best I can.

My Assistants – Our Future

At the event I had four high school students as assistants. Two of them were from my district (Hicksville), one was from the school district to which I went growing up (Syosset), and another from the private school hosting the event (Kellenberg).Thankfully these students were well-versed in the mechanics and rules of this event as many of them had participated in it before. They were exceptionally valuable and knowledgeable resources who certainly put a number of my anxieties at ease. And let me just say: these students were delightful. If I somehow made a wish to Zoltar Speaks to be small again, these are the types of kids I imagine I’d be friends with: musicians and geeks. The clarinetist who wants to purse a career in Bio. The singer who wants to go to college for Nanotech. (Sadly none were terribly into astronomy. To each his/her own, I guess). I was conversing with our future, and our future looked very promising. I wish you could see how their faces lit up when they discussed the beautiful specimens to be identified in the high school-level Rocks and Minerals event. All of these students were juniors, so they are at that point where they are beginning to look at colleges and think about their futures, careers, etc. I asked if any of them were on Twitter (not so we could follow each other – that would be inappropriate). Unfortunately, none of them were. I told them how invaluable it is – how they could be networking, communicating with people in their fields of interest, people who are very willing to communicate back. I told them of how I ask questions to real live astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists and actually get answers. It was my desire to let them know this isn’t even the future of how things will be done – it’s the now. Needless to say, they were eager to create their accounts when they got home.

The Event

It was thrilling to see swarms of students so excited about science and competing therein. Many teams had fun designs on their T-shirts. One team had the XKCD variant on comic #208 where the figure holding beakers says, “Stand Back I’m Going To Try Science” There were jokes on shirts where one atom says it lost an electron and another asks, “Are you positive?” A team was dressed up like ninjas except instead of swords on their backs, they had meter sticks.

For my event, I saw 27 different teams. Some schools had multiple teams while others only one. A number of the instruments I saw were truly impressive both in construction and in sound. Violins and cellos. Pitched percussion instruments using PVC pipes cut to various lengths. Guitars, ukuleles and banjos. Breath-powered instruments that required blowing (flutes) and buzzing (trombones). I wish I could post pictures, but I don’t think I’m allowed to because of the possibility of designs beings stolen. Certain teams not only did a brilliant job with construction but were comprised of phenomenal musicians as well. One school’s team included a girl who constructed a Stroh Violin and a boy with a homemade guitar who played the theme from Indiana Jones. Blew. My. Mind. This young lady was quite an accomplished player. For an instant I forgot these instruments were not professionally made. I was momentarily removed from a science competition and transported to a wonderful musical performance. All I could do was sit, listen, and enjoy.

On other teams, the instruments had beautiful construction but the players were not technically proficient enough to optimally demonstrate their sonic capabilities. For example, a student made a pitched percussion instrument on which the tops were sealed with aluminum (I believe he said they were the bottoms of soda cans). When he hit the head of the pipe with his “mallet” (a spoon), he used dead strokes instead of the more technically accurate and desirable rebounding with each strike. I took a turn at a couple of hits just to see what the instrument could sound like, but I ultimately had to grade it on his performance.


It was with great dismay that I found a number of the teams that were participating were not prepared. Rather, it was more than being unprepared – they did not know the rules. They did not know they needed to submit a copy of the sheet music to be performed to the judges. They did not know that there was a piece that all teams were required to play. They did not know that they were scored differently depending on if they played a 1 octave diatonic scale, 1 octave chromatic scale, 1.5 octave diatonic, 1.5 octave chromatic, 2 octave diatonic, or 2 octave chromatic scales. Some did not know their instruments had to fit into 2-predetermined frequency ranges (essentially one low instrument and one high).

I was flabbergasted. Of course I do not the particulars of each school’s situation, or that of each team. I do not know to what extent these students had help from an adviser  if at all. But the rules were given to each team’s adviser.

On a personal note, this is where my impostor syndrome actually becomes useful. I am so afraid of not being taken seriously that when I send kids to participate in the NYSSMA solo festival or the NMEA All County Music festival, I make sure they are as prepared as possible because I am afraid of how it will reflect on me and my school. I have seen students from other districts at All County festivals who clearly have not been helped with the repertoire ahead of time and therefore don’t know how their voice part goes. Some of these kids at Saturday’s competition were absolutely mortified when we told them they were going to lose points for not providing us the required musical scores, or that they had to play two duets instead of solos. I could not imagine putting my kids in that kind of situation.

Actually, I can. Two years ago I was preparing my students for NYSSMA solo festival. I suggested to one of my students to perform the song “In My Own Little Corner” from the Broadway show, Cinderella. After all, two years prior I worked with another student on that same song for the same festival, so what could possibly go wrong? Well, apparently the book with the list of accepted songs for the festival was updated during that two year period and that song was removed, thereby making my student ineligible for an actual score. Because I made an assumption (a not entirely unreasonable one at that, but an assumption nonetheless), my student lost out. I felt horrible with a capital H. I made a number of phone calls and worked it out so that my student could compete again at another school, paid for her enrollment, and worked on another song with her.

I guess it worked out in the end for my student and I learned my lesson, but these kids in this science competition do not get another shot. This was it. I can only hope that these kids relay the experience back to their teachers so that these teachers will better prepare their teams in the future.

To the Future

As I said, I was extremely pleased with the quality of students and people I saw my high school-aged assistants to be. I was also touched, as previously mentioned, by the enthusiasm with which I saw the middle schoolers participating in this science competition. The last thing to which I wish to draw your attention is the number of girls involved in this competition. I know there are plenty of issues right now with numbers of females involved in STEM-related fields. I recognize the inequalities at the academic and professional level, the difficulty of breaking into the “old boys’ clubs” and the like. But if you saw what I saw yesterday, I think you would feel a sense of hope and excitement about the future. Of my four student assistants, three were female. The majority of the competing teams I saw were female. I had a wonderful opportunity to see our collective future at this tournament. I can happily report that we are in for a brighter tomorrow. To the future!

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Seeing What There Is To See

I wrote an article for the March edition of the UK-based EZine, Astronomy Wise. It is titled, Seeing What There Is To See: Stargazing in Urban Environments, and it is about… well, the title say it all, really. While I do specifically reference New York City with great frequency (as I live there), much of what I stated can be applied to any metropolitan area. You can access the specific issue here and my article appears on pages 44-49. I hope you enjoy!

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Are Citizen Science Endeavors Actually Doing Science?

A Response to Dr. Adam Stevens’s Citizen Science

Dr. Adam Stevens recently wrote a critique of the contributions done by the participating citizenry in projects such as Zooniverse and FoldIt. Dr. Stevens says that he does not mean to be patronizing to the people taking part in these noble endeavors. Regardless of those targeted by his post may feel, I take him at his word that it was not his intention to come across in such a way. His is merely an argument of semantics and I find it best to let him speak for himself:

But… let’s not pretend that it is something that it is not. It’s not, as far as I’m concerned, “citizen science”. It is data crunching, plain and simple, and I think it could be so much more.

Before we pick apart all the things he did say in his post, let us first be clear about what he is not saying. Dr. Stevens is in no way saying that the participants in these tasks are not qualified to sort and identify barred-spiral galaxies from elliptical galaxies. He is not invalidating their aid (being offered gratis) due to a misguided belief that people without scientific degrees are incapable of such tasks. What Dr. Stevens is saying is that the work they do is simply not science. The offerings from the public, as he puts it,

[a]re what happens before the science starts [emphasis his]. Looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards.

And therein lies the error. It is his very definition of what “science” is. This, it should be stressed, is no trivial matter. Words have tremendous power, possibly even effecting how we perceive the world around us. If we suddenly disenfranchise the invaluable contributions offered to the scientific community by the masses as a result of altering what it is called – “citizen science” to “data crunching”- then they may be less inclined to take part in scientific ventures in the future. I truly don’t see it that differently than, say, civil unions versus marriage equality for same-sex couples. Even if the only thing different between the two was the classification, it is still thusly separate entity and therefore somehow lessens or cheapens it.

Steps of the Scientific Method: Flow Chart

Steps of the Scientific Method: Flow Chart;
Courtesy of Universe Today

To be clear: I am not advocating calling what the participants of Zooniverse do “science” just to make them feel better and keep them engaged in the process. Rather, I believe, as previously mentioned, it is Dr. Stevens’s definition of science that is at fault and thereby undermines the importance of what sites like Zooniverse bring to the table. In 2010, Mr. Tega Jessa wrote an article for the Universe Today titled “What are the Steps of the Scientific Method.” Included in the article was the following infographic, which neatly summarizes the entire article’s position of what the aforementioned steps are. Now let us scrutinize the Galaxy Zoo using Dr. Stevens’s definition compared to that of Mr. Jessa’s article. According to Dr. Stevens’s definition, those responsible for obtaining the images – creating the satellities, programming exposure times, picking targets, etc – were not, to paraphrase The Sarcastic Rover, doing a science. However, according to Mr. Jessa, they were taking part in the step of Making Observations. The next step in the scientific method after observing is to Organize and Analyze Data – what those logged in Galaxy Zoo are actively doing.

Perhaps what Dr. Stevens takes issue with is that the sorting and categorizing seems like something that can be done by a computer and thereby reduces the people involved in the endeavor to mere flesh-and-bone machines. For example, the Mars Expoloration Rover, Opportunity, looked at rocks (Observation) and using spectrometers determined their chemical makeup (Analyzing). But it was the human scientists that were able to figure out what all that meant (Drawing a Conclusion) – that jarosite, a hydrated iron sulfite mineral, is indicative of former long-term exposure to liquid water and therefore Mars once had liquid water. There are two points to be made about this: just because humans have largely outsourced their analysis of monstrous quantities of data to machines does not eliminate the step from being a part of the scientific process. The computer is a very recent invention and therefore data-crunching, sorting, and categorizing used to be something people did more often. The second thing to note is that humans are just really good at this sort of thing. We possess pattern recognition skills that would be the envy of all computers (if they were capable of such emotion).

A point worth mentioning: Dr. Adam Stevens cares about science outreach. In the discussion and disagreements that many are having regarding the position he took within his blog post, this fact should not be lost. Within his article, he speaks of how he wishes laypeople could be more engaged. Towards the end of the article, he refers to the Zooniverse project, Planet Four, saying:

Planet Four is apparently aiming to map “features [that] indicate wind direction and speed”. So why not ask people to say what they think the wind direction is? Add a button to the side to add an arrow (or more than one) to the picture to show the wind direction. Better yet, let them compare two images and say which one has a stronger/faster wind. Yes, ‘scientists’ might balk and say that people can’t make these kind of inferences without all the necessary information and a background in planetary science, but it would have the potential to provide interesting results and lifts the activity from mere number crunching to people making real inference from real data.

This simple change, I feel, would elevate the whole exercise, making it real science and stopping what I think is somewhat patronising slave labour.

His website has a page titled, “Outreach,” where he discusses ideas for programs, workshops he has done, and mentions how he can tailor these student-centered ideas to adults if need be, for cryin’ out loud. Clearly Dr. Adam Stevens is not someone who is out to alienate those without PhDs from scientific undertakings; on the contrary, he wants more public awareness and involvement. However, it is my fear and concern that by limiting his definition of what it means to do a science and denigrating the contributions being made by the members of citizen science organizations such as Zooniverse, Dr. Adam Stevens’s public stance could have the complete opposite and undesired effect.

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