Thomas Rutherford, Chemistry & Astronomy Teacher, Sullivan South High School

Thomas Rutherford, Chemistry and Astronomy Teacher, Sullivan South High School, Kingsport, TN

I am a science teacher at Sullivan South High School in Kingsport, Tenneessee, where I have taught Chemistry for the past 23 years and Astronomy for the past fifteen years.  South is one of the very few schools in Tennessee to offer astronomy as a science course.
I first became interested in student research in 2003, when I participated in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded variable star workshop put on by East Tennessee State University (ETSU).  I realized that it was the sort of project that I could do with my students, if only I had the necessary equipment (I already had the content knowledge that I needed).  I set about acquiring the needed materials by writing two grant proposals—a Tennessee Space Week grant, offered by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) and a Putting Children First grant, offered by Eastman Chemical Company.  I was successful in both cases, receiving $1000 from the TEA and $500 from Eastman Chemical.  These funds were used to purchase a laptop (a big deal in those days), a CCD camera, and a couple of other items that were required for the project—the school already had a telescope that I was planning on using—a local college (now King University) provided a photometric “v” filter.

The title of the project was “Using Small Telescopes for Variable Star Photometry.”  Most of the students in my Astronomy class that year were involved with the project and it was successful—we did manage to acquire data on two variable stars and submit it to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) for archiving in their database.   However, even though there was a great deal of student involvement, this was not a research-based project—it was merely a “hands-on” opportunity for students to gain some insight into photometry.

In 2005, when I was selected to go to Kitt Peak as part of the RBSE (Research-Based Science Education) program (TLRBSE was what it was called that year).  RBSE was a program that taught teachers how to do student research with their classes.  Prior to the trip, we were allowed to pick from several possible projects to work on and we were assigned to those projects once we arrived in Arizona—my particular group worked on the nova rate in the Andromeda galaxy (M31).

I came back from Kitt Peak all fired up about having my students do research and promptly fell on my face with it-- I wasn't nearly as ready as I thought I was.  One of my problems (there were several) was that I tried it with my entire Astronomy class, thinking that they would be just as thrilled with doing stuff like this as I was (they weren't)-- after a couple of weeks, I realized that it wasn't working and stopped.

The next year, I tried a different approach-- I went to the AP classes as well as my astronomy class and asked if anyone was interested in an astronomy research project.  I was able to offer the carrot of a possible trip to Arizona since I was allowed to apply for telescope time through the RBSE program so that might have helped get some students (I ended up with three students who were interested).  We didn't get to go to Kitt Peak that year, but were able to get some data through New Mexico Skies Observatory (another benefit of the RBSE program).  In the subsequent years, I was again able to get students who were interested in a project—on two occasions, the student groups and I were successful in our bids for telescope time at Kitt Peak.  We flew to Arizona and spent 2-3 nights using the 0.9 meter WIYN telescope.  Unfortunately, funding for the program eventually expired and the RBSE program ended.

A benefit of the RBSE program was that they had a peer-reviewed publication, the RBSE Journal, to which students could submit their research papers for consideration for publication.  My students were writing proper scientific papers at this point and so all of them eventually were able to get their papers published in the journal.
Once the RBSE program ceased, I looked around for another venue in which my students could publish their papers and found the Proceedings of the Tennessee Junior Academy of Sciences.  This publication, published by the Tennessee Junior Academy of Science (TJAS) is also a publication that is set up to publish scientific papers for Tennessee students who are winners in the TJAS competition.  The TJAS program is administered by the ETSU Northeast Tennessee STEM Innovation Hub.

Over the intervening years, I have managed to get 15 students to do some sort of research project, usually in groups of two or three, but sometimes by themselves-- we do not have a research class here at school so they do all of this work in their spare time (and in mine).

In late 2012, I was selected to participate in the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Project (NITARP).  This program is designed so that teachers can do actual astronomy research, not just direct their students—the students and their teacher(s) are part of a research team directed by a scientist from Caltech/ JPL.  I traveled to the 2013 AAS conference in Long Beach, California in January to meet the other teachers in my research group.  Once I returned from Long Beach, I began looking for students who would be interested in participating in the project—eight students came forward, although four of them dropped out after a few weeks.

In July 2013, two of the students and I traveled to Pasadena, California to spend a week at Caltech working on our project.  Our project involved attempting to come up with a color-magnitude diagram for active galactic nuclei (AGN).  If successful, such a diagram would help to determine the scale of the universe.  In January, 2014, I and the other two students (the one who did not get to go to California) will be travelling to the 2014 AAS conference, this year in Washington, DC., in order to help present the group’s findings, along with the teachers and students from the other schools.

With an eye toward the future, I currently have one post-NITARP research student who is in the planning stages of her project.  Her data will probably be supplied by SARA, the Southern Astronomical Research Association, of which ETSU is a member.  It looks like for the foreseeable future, student research will continue here at South and I am glad to be a part of it.







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