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NSF Fellow Pairs Art, Astronomy to Hook Girls on Science

By guest blogger Sarah D. Sparks

Aomawa Shields spends her life searching for overlooked potential—both in habitable planets throughout the universe and in young girls interested in studying them.

Shields' nonprofit, Rising Stargirls, works to get girls, particularly those from poor and minority backgrounds, interested in astronomy careers. She argues that efforts to interest students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics should incorporate more art, drama, and other "soft" subjects.

"I want to engage not just their brains but their hearts, their stories, their backgrounds," said Shields, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in astronomy and astrophysics, in an interview. "I am teaching the girls astronomy, but at every point I'm asking the girls, what do you think of when you think of astronomy? When was the last time you went out and looked up at the sky?"

Her own lifelong fascination with astronomy was nearly derailed when she began to struggle academically as the only woman of color in her first graduate program. "I looked around and didn't see anyone who looked like me at all, and I had a professor who said I should consider other career options," she said. "I took that very personally. ... There was a part of me for so long that felt I didn't belong in that field."

Today Shields, who is doing research at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, identifies new places to search for habitable planets around different types of stars. In a TED fellows lecture at the 2015 Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference this week in Vancouver, Canada she pointed out that differences in planetary climate, from Venus's heat-trapping cloud cover to reflective glaciers, can change the so-called "Goldilocks zone"—the not-too-hot, not-too-cold distance from a planet's star needed to support and sustain life.

It's not too great a leap, she told me in an interview after the lecture, between her parallel searches for "a suitable climate for life and a suitable climate for success in life." 

Building Astronomy Enthusiasm

In workshops such as a recent one at Irving STEAM Magnet Middle School in Los Angeles, Shields starts by asking students to draw what they think a scientist looks like, then leads a discussion about the different ways to conduct science and to be a scientist. Students learn about differences in constellations and creation myths in different cultures, and get to design their own constellation and origin story around it. 

They also learn about the search for other types of life in space, and design their own exoplanet. Shields asks, "is it too warm, too cold for life? If it's just right for life, what kind of life would be there? Is it orbiting one star or two or three stars?" she told me. 

Shields also said she uses a gut check started at the NASA Center for Astronomy Education: In each class, students anonymously write one concept that they are having the most difficulty understanding, "so they don't have to ask out loud, if they are in that stage that middle school girls often are, where they don't want to ask a 'stupid question.'"

They also work through exercises in which they must come up with a theory about a concept and use evidence to convince another student who disagrees. "It's all about claiming your own views and also being open to other people's ideas," she said—building assertiveness that female scientists sometimes have difficulty expressing.

"I want to get as much of them into astronomy as possible," she said, "so as the challenging math and physics comes up, they will have their own personal background and love of the night sky to draw on, so maybe they won't be so easily swayed away from it when there aren't so many people who look like them."

While a date has not yet been set for her full TED talk to be available online, you can see her below at the FameLab astrobiology finals, talking about how planetary ice affects the search for habitable planets in other solar systems.

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