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.