Published: Oct. 17, 2016

CU Boulder astronomy and physics student Sam Strabala searches for sunspots with middle schoolers in Keenesburg, Colorado as part of a science outreach program.

For Vicky Cruz, a sixth-grader at Weld Central Middle School in Keenesburg, Colorado, taking a tour of the universe from inside an inflatable planetarium set up at her school recently provided a breathtaking glimpse into space.

"When I crawled into the planetarium, I was so excited. It felt like we were actually in space. I really loved learning about space and the sun," said Vicky.

Vicky was one of more than 400 middle-schoolers from Weld Central and Cardinal Community Academy who built their own solar system, looked for sunspots and flares on the sun using a solar telescope and more, thanks to the CU-STARs (Science, Technology and Astronomy Recruits) outreach program offered through CU Boulder.

Undergraduate and graduate astronomy students travelled to Keenesburg last month and led hands-on science classes and informal demonstrations during the school day. They also held an evening event in English and Spanish for families and community members to learn about galaxies, stars and planets.

The CU Boulder students will be heading to Delta County on Nov. 3 and 4.

“Visiting schools all around Colorado lets us bring our enthusiasm for science and space to many schools across the state, and especially to those which may have limited opportunities for free science enrichment programs. And it’s especially fun for us to visit rural communities, where we can enjoy the stars in their dark skies,” said Erica Ellingson, CU Boulder associate professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences who heads the program.

The program recruits undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds to scientific careers, organizes outreach to middle and high schools around Colorado, and offers community-building events. Since 2011, the CU Boulder students have visited schools in Carbondale, Trinidad, Montrose, Delta, Cañon City, Denver and more. The program is funded through a CU Boulder Outreach Award.

“Teaching through CU-STARs is a wonderful experience because we all get to watch the moment when a student develops a love of science like we all did,” said Sam Strabala, a senior studying astronomy and physics who joined CU-STARs three years ago when he transferred to CU Boulder.

Solar system out of Legos

Under Ellingson’s direction, the CU Boulder students have developed many hands-on activities such as building a solar system out of Legos that orbits a lightbulb “sun.” This allows the middle- and high-schoolers to watch for eclipses, a technique also used by astronomers to discover planets around other stars.

Providing this type of hands-on science program can be a challenge for rural districts, said Rebecca Bradford, who teaches sixth grade science at Weld Central Middle School.

"We are so fortunate to have been able to have the CU-STARs group come to our school," said Bradford. “The CU-STARS engaged, excited and inspired our students."

Sarah Johnson, who teaches middle school science at Cardinal Community Academy, said the program helped her students visualize what it means to study astronomy.

"It put faces to the claim that there are scientists studying stars and planets. It was wonderful to see astronomy come alive for our students,” Johnson said.

Learn more about CU-STARS.