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