Geeky Educators Unite at the NSTA Conference

Geek Culture

Bill Nye speaks at Science Matters at NSTA (Photo: Jenny Williams)Bill Nye speaks at Science Matters at NSTA (Photo: Jenny Williams)

Bill Nye speaks at Science Matters at NSTA (Photo: Jenny Williams)

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend part of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) area conference held in Phoenix, Arizona, from December 3-5. More than 2000 educators were supposed to attend for this gathering on Science Education. There were hundreds of workshops, presentations and seminars to teach about developments in science and science education.

If you ever have the opportunity to attend an NSTA conference, I highly recommend doing so. It is a gathering of a bunch of teachers from all branches of science and all grades in school where you can learn about science, attend workshops about new techniques and materials and just be around people with whom you have a lot in common. Doing that kind of thing always feeds my soul, and I know I can’t be the only one.

I really wish I could have gone to the entire convention. I love being around geeks and it always makes me feel at home. I missed the keynote speech on Thursday by Ira Flatow, host of NPR Science Friday, and Friday’s session included tracks for a few different branches of science, filled with drool-worthy topics. I was able to attend the Saturday morning session, however. The hours for Saturday were only 8am to 12pm, so I had to create a sampler platter for myself, trying to experience all the different parts of the conference in just a few hours. Additionally, Saturday was special because they held an event for the general public called Science Matters (more on that below).

Taken through Galileoscope (Photo supplied by Robert Sparks)Taken through Galileoscope (Photo supplied by Robert Sparks)

Taken through Galileoscope (Photo supplied by Robert Sparks)

I only had time to attend one workshop, but I picked a good one. It was called “The Galileoscope and the International Year of Astronomy” and was held by Rob Sparks. All of the participants got to assemble (and then keep!) a Galileoscope. Mr. Sparks was much more informative than the included assembly instructions, which he admitted were useless and were actually written before there was a complete working telescope! So if you buy a Galileoscope, use the building directions on the website.

The workshop started with some background information on the Galileoscope project, and then we were walked through the tools-free telescope assembly very quickly. It wasn’t too hard to build with good instruction, but you had to be very careful to arrange the lenses correctly.

Saturn, through the Galileoscope (Photo supplied by Robert Sparks)Saturn, through the Galileoscope (Photo supplied by Robert Sparks)

Saturn, through the Galileoscope (Photo supplied by Robert Sparks)

The Galileoscope was designed for urban settings, since so many people live where there is light pollution. It comes with three eyepiece options. The small eyepiece is similar to the one Galileo used on his telescope. It is a diverging lens, which gives a right-side-up image and 17x magnification, but it has an extremely narrow field of view (0.4 degrees). The larger eyepiece has 25x magnification and 1.5 degree field of view, which is the same width as a pinky at arm’s length. It has an inverted image. The third option allows you to combine these two lenses to create a 50x Barlow eyepiece.

Despite being a very affordable telescope, it is a high quality one. The Galileoscope was reviewed by Al Nagler, who said, “It’s embarrassingly good.”

While you can’t see the quality of images that Hubble sees, with the 25x lens you can see many interesting things and follow in the steps of Galileo. See the phases of Venus, moon craters, rings of Saturn, the Pleiades, the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy and track Galilean moons around Jupiter.

The Galileoscope website has many more specifications on the telescope and plenty of information to help you in your quest to see the night sky, including such resources as an observing guide and an optics activity guide.

Looking through the larger eyepiece in the telescope inside the workshop room, I could easily see pixels on the projector screen from the back of the room. Mr. Sparks said the smaller eyepiece was mostly included so you could see how patient Galileo was and how hard he worked to make his discoveries. I tried it out, though, and ended up reading “field of view” on the screen! Many people in the workshop said something to the effect of, “I have a lot more respect for Galileo.” Apparently, with that eyepiece you can’t even see a full moon all at once.

After that energizing workshop, I headed over to Science Matters, which was held for two hours. The NSTA hosted this free community science event, sponsored by the ExxonMobil Foundation, for elementary teachers, parents, school officials and community members. There were hands-on activities and plenty of things to look at and watch. NSTA describes Science Matters as “a major public awareness and engagement campaign designed to rekindle a national sense of urgency and action among schools and families about the importance of science education and science literacy.” Their goal for participants was this: “Learn how to bring science to life for your students and children.”

Many of the booths had hands-on science projects, some of which you could take home. Projects included a catapult and a Bernoulli experiment with a ball. You could also watch demonstrations with dry ice, liquid nitrogen or bags of M&Ms showing climate change.

I arrived at Science Matters to catch the end of a speech given by Bill Nye the Science Guy. He spoke on why science matters to us all. I had hoped to add him to my geeky autograph book, but he seemed a bit overwhelmed and wasn’t doing autographs.

Door prizes were given out at the end of Science Matters, and we won a Smithsonian book about creatures in the sea. As nice of a book as it is, apparently it was one of the smaller prizes. Many people walked out of there with big gift baskets full of things!

The NSTA Exhibit HallThe NSTA Exhibit Hall

The NSTA Exhibit Hall

The highlight of the conference for me was the exhibit hall. I spent over an hour in there, going through it at lightning speed. I wish I had had several hours to peruse, discuss, ask questions and learn more. I had the unique opportunity to be there as both a member of the geeky press and as a homeschooling parent. The people at the booths plied me with all kinds of catalogs, samples and brochures. One booth (I think it was The SeaWorld/Busch Garden Adventure Camps) even had wild animals with them. And not animals like an iguana or a snake. They had penguins. And an owl. Right there in the exhibit hall. There were also plenty of text book publishers, educational material companies and concerns that make various gadgets and software. It was a geeky educator’s dream.

About the NSTA: The National Science Teachers Association was founded in 1944 and is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. It is the “largest organization in the world promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.” Their membership has more than 60,000 members. NSTA provides products, services and programs. They have four award-winning journals for teachers of different grade levels. They even have a publishing division, NSTA Press, which develops and produces books, websites and other products. They also sponsor the annual Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision program and the Toyota TAPESTRY grants.

The NSTA website has reviews of learning materials, plenty of educational resources, free professional development materials, a science store and many other helpful pages.

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