Citizen science and astronomy

From the Jan. 27-29, the Friends of the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium hosted their first weekend of 2017 titled “Citizen Science and Astronomy”.  The weekend was inspired by NASA’s current efforts to incorporate the astronomy work of citizen’s into its own research.  On Friday Jan. 27 there was a viewing of the full dome show “Undiscovered Worlds” following the Friends’ annual meeting.  On Saturday Jan. 28 there was a viewing of the full dome show “Oasis in Space”, which was followed by a talk titled “The NASA Solve Program” by Dr. Amy Kaminski.  Dr. Kaminski’s talk was followed a showing of “Journey to the Center of the Milky Way” by the European Southern Observatory.  On Sunday Jan. 29 there was a second talk titled “How You Can Get Involved in Citizen Science” by Dr. Jessica Rosenberg (National Science Foundation and George Mason University), followed by a showing of the “Magic Treehouse”.

“The thing I’ve become really passionate about is this idea at NASA of how we can connect, share and involve people in the work we do in aeronautics and space exploration,” said Dr. Amy Kaminski.  “How do we bring that to the American and global public?

NASA has a fabulous public affairs office, and great education programs where we’re continually informing people about the latest and greatest coming out of NASA – when we are launching – where we are landing.  We have internships for students of all ages but the thing I’ve gotten particularly excited about is the idea of citizen science, and how we make people active contributors to the program.  Then it’s not just about education, but it’s also about making science more accessible to people – making everyone a participant in the space program, because after all it is the nation’s space program.”     

Dr. Kaminski’s talk started off highlighting how science first became its own career path in the nineteenth century and how in the early twentieth century it involved encouraging citizen involvement.  She then discussed the NASA Solve program which provides numerous opportunities for citizens to get involved.  She further highlighted NASA’s three motivations for encouraging citizen involvement before going into detail about the individual projects within NASA Solve:

·         An abundance of data and the ability of humans to interpret data in ways that computers can’t and;

·         A recognition that great ideas can come from anywhere, including out of aerospace disciplines; and

·         The world is now highly connected and interfaced in terms of the internet and the ability to share data.

 NASA Solve is like a marketplace,” Dr. Kaminski said describing the program’s website and the multitude of available projects with the potential for citizen involvement.  Some of the exciting projects within NASA Solve include: Globe Observer, Aurorasaurus, and Disk Detective.  To learn more about NASA Solve and to become involved the opportunities available there, visit:

The Friends will host special events at the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium one weekend every month until the end of the school year. Each weekend will be geared towards increasing STEM education/awareness for all ages and will feature a specific theme.  For more information, visit the Friends’ website:  The theme of February’s weekend will be: Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Exploring Evolution & Celebrating Darwin Day.

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A review of Hidden Figures

I recently co-wrote movie reviews with my brother Amahl Dunbar for Marvel’s Dr. Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – both of the Super Hero and Science Fiction genres.  This review will switch gears slightly and focus on a film with more of a historical focus; Hidden Figures based upon the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margo Lee Shetterly.  The film starred Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner.  Unlike the previous reviews which were done in a conversational format, Amahl and I will independently give our thoughts on what stood out to us about the film.

Amahl:  In terms of Hidden Figures, I was impressed with NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).  In the story, when IBM first delivers the computer to NASA, the engineers figured out how to assemble it, but they couldn’t operate it.  The computer was critical for expediting NASA’s space travel calculations.  Dorothy saw tremendous opportunity and acted on it.  She had the foresight to learn the programming language Fortran (Formula Translation), from a book at a local library.  When she demonstrated she could operate and program the computer, she was immediately promoted and transferred.  She also had the foresight to teach Fortran to the other female African American mathematicians thus ensuring their long term employment at NASA.  So I think her having the insight to see the opportunity in front of her and then the assertiveness to take advantage of it were huge and great teaching points.  These are two very important ingredients for success.

Hidden Figures is as culturally and historically relevant as all the seasons of the Cosby Show.  I can’t wait for it to come out on Blue-Ray.

Anwar:  As a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) advocate and professional myself, a current challenge is getting African American students interested in STEM, and then empowering them to stick with it.  Recently at the kickoff for the Toxicology Mentoring and Skills Development Training program’s inaugural weekend, I had a discussion with the chair of the program and we discussed the difficulties in getting minorities involved in Toxicology (and other STEM careers).  At the same meeting one of the speakers noted that the majority of the time when minority students get discouraged and leave the sciences, they usually change their majors to one of the Humanities or the Arts.  This is not a knock on the non-science fields but instead in part is a reflection of how the sciences are viewed by students of color – especially for those who have no STEM professionals in their families – our case as children.  For me, this is the beauty of Hidden Figures.

Without giving away the plot beyond what my brother described above, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monea) who all greatly impacted the Space Race of the early 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Each of the three leads played key roles in the United States’ mission to put a man in space – optimization of the space craft (Jackson), implementation of the IMB computer to expedite NASA’s calculations (Vaughn), and performing the initial critical calculations for the astronauts’ space travel (Johnson).  Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine Goble Johnson seemed to be the main story line as she was central to working out the calculations for John Glenn’s orbit and re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

Hidden Figures is a valuable film in that it shows African American women portrayed in ways that we’re normally not used to seeing them in media.  While she’s most known these days for playing “Cookie” on Fox’s Empire for example, Taraji P. Henson’s role as Katherine Goble Johnson is arguably a more important as it depicts an African American woman performing complex mathematical calculations impacting NASA’s space missions.  Most importantly, the film highlights the contributions of African Americans to one of the United States’ most celebrated breakthroughs; manned space travel.  Unfortunately prior to the movie it wasn’t widely recognized who all contributed to John Glen’s mission – something that occurs often in US History when it comes to people of color.

Hidden Figures is a very important film to see particularly for young children who haven’t decided on a career path.  If they have an inkling of an aptitude for STEM, films like Hidden Figures can definitely help encourage them to pursue a STEM career.  A film like Hidden Figures would have been very valuable in my own youth though I was fortunate to have the pieces in place to allow me to pursue my own careers in Pharmacology and Toxicology – environment and mentors.  It’s not that way for every child/student.

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