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UW Student Selected as NASA Graduate Ambassador

January 8, 2009
University of Wyoming doctoral student Dan Lyons promotes the International Year of Astronomy.

Dan Lyons, a University of Wyoming education-science education doctoral student, is a 2009 NASA International Year of Astronomy (IYA) Graduate Student Ambassador.

The NASA program provides pathways for undergraduate and graduate students to help generate excitement about NASA scientific discoveries in astrophysics, planetary science and solar physics within their local communities and beyond. IYA is a year-long observance marking 400 years since Galileo first began exploring the skies using a telescope.

Lyons is a UW College of Education doctoral student and also a member of the UW Science and Mathematics Teaching Center (SMTC) Cognition in Astronomy, Physics and Earth sciences Research (CAPER) team.

The NASA award includes a $2,000 grant and up to $700 for materials and travel reimbursement. Lyons will use funding to back a three-phase structure supporting Wyoming teachers who participate in the Galileo Teachers Program, the official IYA curriculum designed by UW education faculty members Tim and Stephanie Slater.

A UW team will facilitate a series of workshops around the state in early- to mid-2009. To support that effort, and increase likelihood of successful implementation of what teachers learn, Lyons plans to recruit a team of undergraduate physics students interested in astronomy to serve as resources and contacts to address teachers' individual questions. Students will be matched with a group of teachers, providing a single, familiar point of contact.

Lyons also will use funding to adapt materials available from NASA to the learning needs of fifth graders. Finally, he plans to establish an online community to facilitate peer sharing of successes and challenges as they incorporate Galileo Program lessons into their classrooms.

Building and sustaining an online peer-based forum is critical to the success of not only his ambassador project, but to implementation that enhances student learning, Lyons says.

"If we can get that going, that will have the biggest impact," he says of the proposed online peer network.

Lyons began his doctoral studies at UW last fall semester, following Tim Slater, the Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair in Science Education, to the university. Lyons met Slater at the 2005 American Astronomy Society Conference. Lyons was impressed with Slater's presentation on instructional methods in introductory astronomy courses and the ways in which lecturers can facilitate or block student learning.

"I was really impressed and I've tried to work for him since then," Lyons says. His professional goals have shifted in recent years, making a partnership with Slater particularly appropriate.

"I looked at the skills that I had and decided that I could change my focus from doing astronomy research to doing education research," he says. "I feel like I could make a real contribution to the field."

Lyons' research interests focus on cognition and learning in mathematics and science education, with particular interest in how they occur within astronomy instruction.

Lyons is working on a paper for publication with UW College of Education faculty member Stephanie Slater. The two studied how conceptual change occurs in teaching of kinesthetic astronomy, a process that involves students acting out different roles in the solar system. They hoped to understand how and why deeper learning takes place in that environment.

"Understanding why it is more effective in eliciting conceptual change will make it applicable to any number of other fields of science where students have the same difficulty," Lyons says.

Posted on Thursday, January 08, 2009

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