Sometimes it only takes a tiny spark, a chance meeting, or, maybe, running into an unknown word to ignite an interest that may guide a student into the future. With a string of astronomy science projects and a passion for the night sky that well exceeds the scope of her small telescope, this young scientist shows that elementary school is not too young for astrophysics.When it comes to shooting for the stars, 11 isn't too young. Just ask Ashleigh, a 5th grade student at Holly Ridge Elementary School, in Holly Springs, North Carolina. With several science fair projects already behind her, Ashleigh is charting a course for a future in astronomy or astrophysics. It all started in the 3rd grade when she was studying for the school spelling bee and encountered the word "astrophysicist" for the first time. Unfamiliar with the word, Ashleigh looked it up, found references to Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, started watching his videos about black holes and spaghettification, and got hooked.
Diving In to Astrophysics
Demonstrating the same passion and diligence she does for other areas of interest, Ashleigh began pursuing astroscience, first through the works of Dr. Tyson. "The first book by Dr. Tyson that I read was The Sky Is Not the Limit. I loved that book and thought it was so cool to read about his journey," says Ashleigh. She followed that one with Space Chronicles and then The Pluto Files.
Later that year she saw Dr. Tyson speak at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Ashleigh, still in the 3rd grade, had all three books with her to be signed. Her autographed copies are prized possessions and tangible reminders of an inspiring event, one that further fueled her interest in space science. "It was such an exciting night," recalls Ashleigh whose mom had managed second-row seats for the lecture. "The best part was that I got to ask Dr. Tyson the last question of the night. I asked, 'What is your favorite thing about being an astrophysicist?' Dr. Tyson came over to my side of the stage and sat down right in front of me to answer my question. He said he was 9 years old when he first visited a Planetarium.... just like me!!"
Thanks to the school spelling bee, a whole new world of possibility had opened up before Ashleigh, galaxies, solar systems, black holes, and all kinds of questions about physics and astronomy.
The School Science Fair
In the 3rd grade, Ashleigh channeled her new interest in astronomy into her school science project. Her class had done a project on the phases of the moon, which she enjoyed, and she has a small telescope she uses to look at craters on the moon. Everything was in alignment when she started thinking about her science fair project. "It was easy to come up with an idea because I had been reading so much about space. I knew I wanted to do something about the moon. I started searching for ideas and found the Craters and Meteorites project at Science Buddies."
Using the Science Buddies procedure as a starting point, Ashleigh conducted her experiment, which she titled "Bouncy Ball vs The Moon." With her study of the relationship between the mass of a meteorite and the resulting size of a crater, Ashleigh won her school science fair and moved on to both the regional and state science fairs. "I think I talked the judges' ears off at Regional and State...I had read so much about space and loved talking about it!"
The next year, for her 4th grade science project, Ashleigh drew upon one of the books she had read for inspiration. "After reading Dr. Tyson's book, Space Chronicles, I knew I wanted to do a project on Apophis, but how and what would I do? I kept thinking about the prediction that the asteroid would land in the Pacific Ocean in 2036," says Ashleigh. "I thought about this project for a long time, and then it just hit me... would it matter if the asteroid landed in deep water versus shallow water?"
With this burst of scientific insight, Ashleigh had a science question and needed a way to put it to the test. Sometimes, translating astronomy questions into hands-on, testable science projects is difficult because the subjects are not physically accessible. You can't always simply take a space-oriented question into a typical lab and put it to the test.
Ashleigh took an innovative approach. "I went to Science Buddies once again and found the Tsunami project. The Project Idea was perfect, and I was able to make it my own project about an asteroid!"
Adapting the ocean sciences project about water depth and tsunami wave velocity to a hypothetical study about an asteroid landing in the ocean, Ashleigh conducted her "Earth vs Apophis" experiment. Again, the young astrophysicist found science fair success. Ashleigh took her experiment all the way to the state competition again, where she received the "Young Scientist" award.
Fifth Grade Science
With two successful school science fair projects behind her, Ashleigh moved on to fifth grade (this year). She again wanted to focus on space, and she was hoping to return to the state fair. As a more advanced student, however, finding ways to turn astronomy questions into grade-appropriate hands-on experimental tests becomes more difficult. Advanced astronomy projects are often data-driven, involving publicly available datasets that allow students to study and analyze historical astronomy data. To meet her school fair requirements, Ashleigh needed a project with a concrete experimental component.
"I had a lot of trouble deciding on a project this year," says Ashleigh. "I had read a lot about Juno and its mission to Jupiter and had also read a lot about Cassini." Because of her involvement in her school's Science Olympiad and the Sky Quest event, Ashleigh's interest in space had broadened to encompass more than the natural galactic objects. "Because of Science Olympiad, I became interested in man-made satellites and what they are discovering," says Ashleigh. "Juno is fascinating because it will operate under solar power."
With her interest in Juno and Cassini brewing, Ashleigh went to see the movie Gravity. "I loved Gravity! I saw it the first night it was in the theaters, and I saw it in IMAX 3D! I thought it was a good representation, but I did notice that Sandra Bullock's hair did not stand up like most of the astronauts do on the Space Station! I knew after I saw the movie that doing an experiment on gravity was what I wanted for sure!"
According to Ashleigh, everything fell into place after that. She designed a project to explore the relationship between the speed of a satellite required to orbit a planet and the planet's gravitational pull. Once again, Ashleigh returned to Science Buddies, this time for guidance on steps of the scientific method.
After her school science fair, Ashleigh advanced to the regional competition with her "Juno vs Cassini" project. There, she received an honorable mention but did not move on to state. Though disappointed by her results, Ashleigh gained new insight into the scientific method and the gathering and analysis of data. She realizes that even though the multiple trials she did all showed similar data, additional trials of her experiment might have strengthened her project, a reality she will take into account when designing next year's project!
And there will be a next science fair for this young scientist. Ashleigh says she loves science fair and competition. "I love competing in just about anything...especially science." Of the projects she has completed so far, Ashleigh has a soft spot for the "Earth vs Apophis" project. "That was my favorite topic," says Ashleigh, "because I loved talking about and reading about the asteroid." But her favorite project was her first one, "Bouncy Ball vs The Moon."
"It was fun," says Ashleigh, "but also I could imagine those craters being formed on the moon every time I dropped that ball! I loved the measuring and plotting of my data too!"
Ashleigh really gravitates towards projects that involve a hands-on test or way to demonstrate a space-oriented concept using ordinary materials. "It is important for my projects to be hands-on because I tend to be a kinesthetic learner," says Ashleigh. "I do better if I can feel something. Space has some hard concepts to understand, so if I can do a hands-on experiment it is that much easier to grasp. The problem I am finding with my goal to become an astrophysicist is that it is hard to find projects like this."
This year, Ashleigh designed her own, adapting a project she found online to enable her to simulate a planet's gravitational pull on a satellite with a hands-on experiment. Science Buddies' scientists are now developing a Project Idea for Science Buddies based on Ashleigh's experiment. This new addition to the astronomy area will be live at Science Buddies this summer.
A Journey Just Begun
Although there is a long summer break standing between Ashleigh and the start of next year's science fair season, there are plenty of opportunities for Ashleigh to continue pursuing her interest in astronomy by tackling independent astronomy projects at home, including some data-driven projects like Finding the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy Using Globular Star Clusters and Asteroid Mining: Gold Rush in Space?.
Thanks to support from her mom, Ashleigh takes advantage of as many space-themed opportunities as she can. At Astronomy Days at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Ashleigh got the opportunity to "look through a telescope and see the solar flares on the sun." At the same event, she also learned more about NASA's Curiosity Rover. She attended a camp at the Morehead Planetarium at UNC and just recently completed a physics-themed camp at Duke University. This summer, she plans to attend a camp at the Kennedy Space Center.
In the future, she hopes to see Dr. Tyson speak again. But until then, she will keep looking to the sky, staying current with astronomy news through some of her favorite iPad apps and websites, and watching COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey.
For this fifth grader, the galaxy is the limit, and she has plenty of questions to keep her busy. A bigger telescope would, of course, make a difference, she says. "There are a lot of great ideas out there, and I just wish I had a large telescope in the middle of my backyard. That would make things easier in terms of research!"
In addition to her growing science acumen, Ashleigh competes in the spelling bee, is a gymnast for a USAG team, and has a number of hobbies, including guitar, piano, singing, and reading.
Students interested in astronomy, like Ashleigh, can get started exploring space science with hands-on projects from Science Buddies astronomy area like these:
- Dirty Snowballs: How a Comet's Size Affects How Fast It Melts
- Catching Stardust
- Star light, Star bright: How Does Light Intensity Change with Distance?
- Craters and Meteorites
- What Makes the Rings of Saturn?
- The Milky Way and Beyond: Globular Clusters
- Finding the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy Using Globular Star Clusters
- Correlation of Coronal Mass Ejections with the Solar Sunspot Cycle
- Sunspot Cycles
- Asteroid Mining: Gold Rush in Space?
- NASA Asteroid Database: What Can You Learn About Our Solar System?
- The Measure of Mercury: Analyzing Impact Craters on the Innermost Planet