Focusing on Interest: Do High School Students Like the Idea of Helping Astronomers Revive Data in “oldAstronomy”


Internet technologies make it easier and easier to share data globally, enabling a dramatic proliferation of online “citizen science” projects. One new project, called “oldAstronomy,” is in development by the Zooniverse team, based at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, in collaboration with the WorldWide Telescope Ambassadors program at Harvard. The goal of the project is to restore hidden metadata to images in published astronomical articles, some more than 100 years old, making the images useful to researchers. In this paper, I investigate a possible role for high school students in the oldAstronomy project. Using two focus groups, one at Milton School and one at Cambridge Ringe and Latin School, I investigate which aspects of participating in oldAstronomy would be of most interest: connections to real data? to real scientists? connecting to other students worldwide? viewing interesting images? researching a topic related to images encountered? It was explained to the focus group students, before they were surveyed, that requirements for their participation in oldAstronomy will include: digesting a scientific paper; summarizing results; and writing a summary that is understandable to the general public or participating in a more creative final project. Results show that students are very interested in working with real data and in the beauty and meaning of images. However, the results also show that students are, perhaps surprisingly, not interested in collaborating and communicating with other students, either in-person (as group work), or online. In response to the feedback from these students’ negative responses to group work, instead of a group final paper, students could benefit in a similar way with a reproduction of the peer review process. Additionally from the feedback of students, there was interest in an alternative form of final assessment. The results of our study suggest that instead of a standard write up, students can create: a 3D model of their object; a website about it; or a WorldWide Telescope tour.


The past several years have witnessed an increase in the number of citizen science projects (Gura, 2013; Follett et al., 2015; Wiggins et al., 2014). These projects have helped scientists in numerous fields to harness the power of the human capability for pattern recognition and to increase their public outreach. In 2012, the ADS All-Sky Survey (ADSASS, was funded by the NASA ADAP program, and so began the task of turning the information about and within the almost one million journal articles held by ADS (The Astrophysics Data System) into a data resource. The extraction of “data” from ADS articles includes extracting figures from the articles and overlaying them on all-sky (contextual) images, at the positions where they belong, using the World Wide Telescope (WWT). Some of the images (\(\sim\)1.5%) can be automatically placed using an automatic astrometric solution (fig. \ref{fig:example}) (via, but most cannot, so humans are needed to extract enough metadata about the images to make them useful as data. Humans can read off coordinates labeled around images, and they can read figure captions.

A new citizen science project, called “oldAstronomy” is now being launched, in partnership with Zooniverse, to solve for the positions of all the images of the Sky in ADS Journals. Zooniverse is a website that hosts many citizen science projects across most scientific disciplines. The citizens participating will be given an image from an astronomy paper. First they may have to subdivide an image of a multi-pane image if it is not a single image. Then they will classify the image (i.e. the contents of the image), mark coordinates if they exist, adjust the contrast of the image to improve the visibility of stars and finally discuss the image with experts. Motivated citizens will participate in this project, just as they do in other Zooniverse efforts, but with this project there is an added component: high school astronomy classes will formally participate in oldAstronomy, allowing students to participate in an actual scientific project, using real data.

Citizen science projects have been used in the classroom before, and Zooniverse itself wishes to create a better structured platform for educators through ZooTeach (Borden et al., 2012). However this study does not look into the motivations of the student participants and how best to engage them. Udomprasert et al. (2013) measured the effectiveness of WWT, and it was found to highly increase interest in astronomy, science in general, using a telescope and students’ ability to visualize astronomical phenomena (i.e. the Sun-Earth-Moon relationship). Therefore effects of a combined Zooniverse and WWT project should be very positive for participating students.

I met with two focus groups from different high schools to obtain feedback on what aspects of the lab were the most exciting and, maybe more importantly, what was least exciting. As a result of these discussions I would modify the design of the lab to best reach students. Another aspect of the lab is to compare what motivates students to participate in the lab, and compare that to the motivations of citizen scientists (Raddick et al., 2010; Reed et al., 2013). Raddick et al. (2010) look into the motivation of citizens participating in the project Galaxy Zoo. There were twenty-two participants in this study who were adults age 22-78. The main motivation found was an interest in astronomy followed by a desire to contribute to the scientific community and amazement by the vastness of the universe. Reed et al. (2013) tested motivation of Zooniverse participants based on three categories: social engagement, interaction with website, and helping. Their study did not find a definite major factor, but rather that all three motivations were contributing. Through this paper, I hope to further investigate what may be the motivating factors for high school age citizen scientists. The aim of this paper is to recommend to the oldAstronomy team how best to frame the lab to engage and interest high school students.

I have organized the paper so that Section 2 focuses on the methods used. Section 3 presents the results of the focus groups. Section 4 provides a discussion of the results and recommendations for the oldAstronomy team.

\label{fig:example} Here is an example of an image placed on the sky in WWT.


To collect data for the lab I worked with focus groups from two different high schools. I gave a short Keynote address (see Appendix) outlining the way the lab proceeds, asked for the students’ questions, asked all 37 students to fill out a survey and then asked for general comments. Students filled out the survey at Milton on personal computers or cell phones. At CRLS, the first class filled out the survey on cell phones, but the second class filled them out on paper. At Milton, no question on the survey was required, so some skipped the open response. During the first section at CRLS all students were required to answer all questions and the free response. However, during the second class when the survey was filled out on paper, none of the questions were required, so many students skipped the open response.

Each question in the survey specifically referred to a part of the Keynote outlining what they would have to do, so the students would have the necessary information to respond to the question. The survey given out was inspired by Reed et al. (2013) and Raddick et al. (2010)’s surveys given to Zooniverse citizen scientists. We can compare the motivations of high school students to citizen scientists with the results of both surveys. The questions were formulated in a similar fashion to Reed et al. (2013) but meant to reflect what I thought might be the motivation of high school age students.

I created the survey questions (fig. \ref{tab:questions}) to pinpoint what might motivate the students. Before going into the schools I determined that they could be motivated by studying the history of astronomy, helping scientists, the joy of looking at beautiful scientific images, or learning about current research. I also included a question about interest in astronomy to see if that would affect their responses. Another question asked if students would want their final project to be published on the web. I asked this to see if this would make students more or less excited about participating in the lab. The question about working with scientists on a global collaboration targets the ’talk’ feature of Zooniverse projects, where students can ask questions that will be answered by volunteer scientists. Fortson et al. (2014) found that the ’talk’ feature of Zooniverse is a critical engagement feature of the platform for new volunteers to get acquainted with the community and one of the main reasons volunteers stay active leading to a successful project. The question regarding interactions with students who are also doing the lab tests an idea I had about creating a social media platform for students across the country to interact.

All thirty-seven students who participated were enrolled in a one semester astronomy elective at their respective high school, private (Milton) and public (CRLS), which demonstrates some interest in astronomy. The Cambridge Public Schools Science Department conducted a review of the course enrollment during the 2013-2014 school year (Scolaro, 2014) and found that their science elective classes were not very diverse, mostly paid lunch and white students. Based on a conversation with the Astronomy teacher at CRLS, roughly 33% of his students lack motivation and the student skills to persevere when struggling, most of his students intend to pursue college and are enrolled in the class based on at least some basic interest in astronomy. From conversations with parents at CRLS it seems that some students may take an astronomy elective as an easier option than an Advanced Placement class. At Milton, the students were all highly motivated and intend to go to college. These students may have also taken astronomy instead of a higher level Advanced Placement class.

Based on the feedback from these two focus groups, the oldAstronomy team can use the recommendations from the survey when they create the lab.

The Procedure for Students

  1. Students are given an image, if it is one image, they move on. If it is a multi pane image, they cut up the image.

  2. Then students identify what is contained in the image, as some images may not be of the sky. If it not an image of the sky, the image would be discarded.

  3. If the image is of the sky, students identify the coordinates and mark two horizontal and two vertical lines.

  4. Next students adjust the contrast and/ or brightness of the image to bring out the stars.

  5. After these steps students can choose to discuss the image with a professional scientist. This could be a question or a remark.

  6. Finally the image is placed on the sky in WWT (see fig \ref{fig:example}).

\label{tab:questions} Here are the statements presented in the survey to which respondents replied using a scale of 1 = “Strongly Disagree” to 5 = “Strongly Agree.”


Overall the response to the lab was very positive. The results of the focus groups show that the most positive response was to the “I enjoy looking at pretty scientific images” statement with a mean of 4.41 out of 5 fig. \ref{fig:allresponses}. The second highest positive response was to “I am interested in Astronomy” with 4.14 out of 5. The third highest positive response was to the statement “I think working with real data is cool”, 4.11 out of 5. The two least popular statements were “I like doing online labs” and “I am interested in the history of astronomy” with ratings of 3.41 out of 5. The students’ relative distaste for group collaboration was highlighted in the response to the statements “I want to interact with students who participate in the same project” with a rating of 3.43 out of 5, and “I like working in groups” with a rating of 3.51 out of 5. The boxplot below (fig \ref{fig:allresponses}) is created by dividing the responses into four even sections, these are called quartiles. The responses between the median and the first barrier are in quartile 1 (Q1), and the responses between the median and the third divider are in quartile 3 (Q3). This forms the box. The whiskers are 1.5 times the interquartile range (the distance between the Q1 and Q3). Any points outside of this range are the outlier points.

Students at the Milton School, a private college preparatory school in Massachusetts, stated that they disliked working in groups for their final project. They stressed that it is hard to find time outside of class to meet and that distributing the workload is difficult. However, this sentiment was not strongly echoed at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), a public high school in Massachusetts. The students at CRLS were interested in group work. Both student focus groups emphasized the desire for an alternative to the written report form of assessment.

The survey included an open ended feedback question. After reading through the responses and noticing common themes, I categorized them. Here are a few of the responses, for a full table see Appendix. Many responses were along the lines “looks cool,” “explain more clearly,” “more examples.” One student responded, “Sounds good. It seems like a lab suited for very driven students, perhaps think about how to engage students who aren’t already motivated?” Another said, “I don’t see any real benefit for students completing this lab- it seems like we are just helping you and getting nothing out of it for ourselves.” A student was interested in the website and responded, “I appreciate that I learned about the websites discussed very interesting.” Based on categorizing the responses (fig. \ref{tab:freeresponses}) over 58% of respondents left a comment that they like the lab, around 12% were confused about the set up of the lab, and less than 9% of respondents expressed negative feelings about the lab.

No detailed statistical analyses was done on this data, as only thirty-seven students filled out the survey. Based on the more qualitative analysis and discussions held at the focus groups I make my recommendations.

\label{fig:allresponses} Responses from both focus groups from the survey and compiled. The scale is ’1’ Strongly Disagree, ’2’ Disagree, ’3’ Neither Agree Nor Disagree, ’4’ Agree and ’5’ Strongly Agree. The dotted line represents the mean and the solid line the median.

\label{tab:freeresponses} Here the text responses categorized based on common themes. A number of students commented that they were unsure if this lab included ’enough’ astronomy, some were disinterested in general, while still others were confused. A few students left remarks regarding the final project options, and many left positive feedback for the lab.


Based on the survey responses and conversations, I had to revise some of my plans for the lab. One might have expected that students would like to work in groups for the lab, but after meeting with the focus groups it became clear that for some students the thought of group work added stress. One might also have expected, based on the popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, that students would want to interact and collaborate through a social media platform. I presented this as an option for for interaction between high school students around the country in different schools who all participate in the same lab. But these two factors were not strong motivators and instead garnered some of the most negative responses from students. Students would not like to use a social media platform to communicate with peers at different schools. The lack of social motivation contrasts with the findings of Reed et al. (2013), where social interaction was a prime motivation for Zooniverse participants. Students prefer to interact with their groups of friends, while the Zooniverse users wish to be part of a larger astronomical community. The students who would take this lab for a class do not yet have that desire. Even though the students responded negatively to group work, it is an important aspect of the scientific process and early exposure is still recommended. As such I think the classroom teacher should decide if group work is feasible. If not, I propose that an alternative could be put into place to mimic the peer review process. In this case, students would independently classify their batch of images, and then they would choose a favorite image for the subject of their a final project. Each individual student would be assigned a group of three to four classmates, and they would review the final projects of their group and offer feedback.

Another aspect of the lab that I would suggest revising is the final paper concept. Some students and one teacher thought it sounded too much like a book report, so they desired an alternative. After discussions with Jim Kernohan, Alyssa Goodman, Pat Udomprasert and Erin Johnson, I propose that a few valuable alternatives are: to make a 3D model, make a website (Sanders et al., 2013) about the object, or to create a WWT tour (Goodman, 2011) about the object. These projects are challenging in their own right, have been tested and still ensure that students have learned about their object fully. Learning through hands-on building or participating in creative projects might make a longer lasting impression with students. Furthermore, Campbell et al. (2010) found that having students engage with on-line learning resources enhances the learning experience.

These projects still require students to read the paper associated with their image of choice. Many students are not even exposed to scientific writing until college, so developing the skill of reading and learning from a scientific paper will prove invaluable. Learning how to approach a paper and what to pay attention to will definitely help students in whatever field they pursue.

Anecdotes from the Classroom

At Milton, one student expressed concern over the thought of doing “busy work for scientists who don’t want to do it.” Another did not understand what benefits the students would receive. However, these more negative responses were definitely in the minority and far more students expressed interest and wanted to actually complete the lab during the semester. Another question that came up was whether students would be allowed to use only the original scientific paper when gathering information for their final project. I assured them that other sources could be used. Finally at Milton I heard the most negative opinions expressed about group work. One student expressed that it is difficult to coordinate schedules outside of class. This student also held the opinion that in groups, one student inevitably ends up completing most of the work. These are valid concerns, but it is important to learn the skills necessary to overcome these scheduling problems to facilitate life after high school.

A student at CRLS voiced concern about having to read a paper associated with an image that was not in English. I assured her that they would not be expected to read a foreign language paper. The students at CRLS were less vocal in their concerns, and many also wished to complete the lab this year. These students’ concerns became apparent in their comments. Many expressed some lingering confusion over the set up of the lab, which can partially be attributed to the fact that during the first section the projector was not working. Therefore, I had to present my slide show through a video projector, and it was not clear, nor was WWT very visible. For the second section, we had fixed the projector.

Overall, students with whom I talked as well as both teachers were excited to try the lab, and they hoped to partake in it this semester.


After working with the two focus groups, I would propose a lab structured as follows:

  1. If the teacher favors group work:

    • students in groups of three to four graphically sub-divide images and add information to them

    • students as a group choose a favorite image, read the paper it originated from, and create a final project summarizing information gathered about their chosen image. The final project could be:

      1. a paper,

      2. a 3D model of the object,

      3. a website about the object, or

      4. a WWT tour describing their object. All four options would require significant research and time to complete.

  2. If the teacher is opposed to group projects, he or she could go down another route mimicking the peer review process:

    • divide students into groups of 3 or 4,

    • students individually work to crop images and add metadata (but they would have a group of three or four peers to discuss difficult images with),

    • each student chooses a favorite object, reads the source paper and creates a final project, which could be:

      1. a paper,

      2. a 3D model of the object,

      3. a website about the object, or

      4. a WWT tour describing their object.

    • The group of 3-4 classmates would review and critique each other’s final project.

Both scenarios offer valuable skills that will be applicable to the real world after high school, as group dynamics play a huge part in research and many other modern work places.

Based on their negative responses to a social aspect of the lab, I do not think it is vital for students to connect across schools. However, students responded positively to the idea of working with actual scientists, so the discussion aspect of the lab involving professional scientists is important.


I wish to thank Alyssa Goodman for all her help and guidance on this project. I also wish to thank Pat Udomprasert and Erin Johnson for their help. Finally I would like to thank Sue Sunbury and Mary Dussault for their help with preparing the survey and its analysis. I would also like to thank Jim Kernohan and Tal SebellShavit for letting me visit their astronomy classes and providing me with feedback.


  1. K. A. Borden, L. F. Whyte, A. Smith, A. Tarnoff, H. Schmitt. The Zooniverse: Cutting Edge Scientific Research in the Classroom. AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts A2 (2012).

  2. Todd Campbell, Shaing Kwei Wang, Hui-Yin Hsu, Aaron M. Duffy, Paul G. Wolf. Learning with Web Tools Simulations, and Other Technologies in Science Classrooms. Journal of Science Education and Technology 19, 505–511 Springer Science \(\mathplus\) Business Media, 2010. Link

  3. Ria Follett, Vladimir Strezov. An Analysis of Citizen Science Based Research: Usage and Publication Patterns. PLOS ONE 10, e0143687 Public Library of Science (PLoS), 2015. Link

  4. Lucy Fortson, Stuart Lynn. Talking in the Zooniverse: A collaborative tool for citizen scientists. In 2014 International Conference on Collaboration Technologies and Systems (CTS). Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE), 2014. Link

  5. A. A.; Udomprasert Goodman. Astronomy Visualization for Education and Outreach. In Astronomical Data Analysis Software and Systems XX.. (2011). Link

  6. Trisha Gura. Citizen science: Amateur experts. njobs 496, 259–261 Nature Publishing Group, 2013. Link

  7. M. Jordan Raddick, Georgia Bracey, Pamela L. Gay, Chris J. Lintott, Phil Murray, Kevin Schawinski, Alexander S. Szalay, Jan Vandenberg. Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers. Astronomy Education Review 9 Portico, 2010. Link

  8. Jason Reed, M. Jordan Raddick, Andrea Lardner, Karen Carney. An Exploratory Factor Analysis of Motivations for Participating in Zooniverse a Collection of Virtual Citizen Science Projects. In 2013 46th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE), 2013. Link

  9. Nathan E. Sanders, Chris Faesi, Alyssa A. Goodman. A New Approach to Developing Interactive Software Modules Through Graduate Education. Journal of Science Education and Technology 23, 431–440 Springer Science \(\mathplus\) Business Media, 2013. Link

  10. Lisa Scolaro. Cambridge Science Department Curriculum Review Final Report. (2014). Link

  11. P. S. Udomprasert, A. A. Goodman, C. Wong. WorldWide Telescope Ambassadors: A Year 3 Update. 473, 137 In Communicating Science: A National Conference on Science Education and Public Outreach.. Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2013. Link

  12. Andrea Wiggins, Kevin Crowston. Surveying the citizen science landscape. First Monday 20 University of Illinois Libraries, 2014. Link

[Someone else is editing this]

You are editing this file