Student Astronomical Research

High School Science Research Basics

Astronomy research can be successfully done by high school students with the right infrastructure and with enough interest from the students.

Over the last 10 years, I have helped facilitate research about the Moon, asteroids, particle physics, galaxies, and stars. Mostly these have been group projects and are not a part of the typical “science fair” world. I have also helped with science fair projects related to astronomy as well.

One of my key goals when facilitating student research was to offer a meaningful experience. I want the team to show growth, content mastery, and to demonstrate new skill sets. Not every person will have the same experience. It is possible that a natural leader for the group will emerge or you may need to encourage a leader to keep the team on track. I will also say that I don’t much about “winning” anything. If the project is part of a competition, I don’t want the team to feel as if not winning means the project wasn’t meaningful.

It is also important to have the team aiming for an end goal. If this research is part of a competition, then likely the end goal is inherent, but you may need to create a proper end goal. Have the students present their work somewhere. In my case, I can ask local astronomy clubs to give my students some time to present their project. It could that a team or individual will present at local science fair. You might seek a local university or research group and ask to have the students present their work as part of some other event or meeting. It is also possible to have work published in some form in which case time must be dedicated not to a presentation but to publishing the work in the proper format by a deadline.

No matter what, have a wrap-up celebration of some kind. A luncheon or party or dinner – some kind of celebration. Teams always seem to enjoy having their efforts celebrated one way or the other!

What does a team need in order to be successful with research?

    • Basic knowledge of the topic. A team can have “expertise” in different areas. Perhaps one person has taken AP physics and on has taken AP chemistry, etc.
    • Good background in mathematics (e.g. AP Calculus and AP Stats). This is the same with different levels of math experience. Different people can good at different things
    • At least some basic computing experience is helpful. Someone may need to code something or at the very least be good at programmatic thinking with spreadsheets.
    • Students need to learn how to read scientific papers. This is something to tackle early. Scientific papers can be nearly impossible to penetrate fully. Learning to glean useful things from papers, diagrams, and plots is a learned skill and will take some time.
    • Students must be patient and persistent. There are numerous failed attempts in research – a lot of dead ends. Then there are the times when things are slow and tedious and it feels like no progress is made. Have consistent meeting times and giving a lot of support is helpful. Set goals and stick to them. Having deadlines is imperative! Most useful work seems to happen close to deadlines. 🙂
    • Student need useful, constructive feedback. Be sure to have some debriefing process. Getting a sense of what worked and what didn’t is important to being successful the next time around. Consider an end-of-project survey or evaluation form.


Demonstrating basic knowledge.

Teams need to have at least basic knowledge of the area of research before diving in. Having the team put together a basic presentation on the area of research is essential. Here are some templates for areas of research over which a team would need to demonstrate some knowledge.

Moon 101

  1. Formation of the Moon
  2. Evolution of the Lunar Surface
  3. Lunar Exploration and Surface Characterization (image analysis)

Asteroids 101

  1. Meteorites
  2. Asteroid Formation, Properties, Orbits, & Connections to Meteorites
  3. Light Curves & Reflective Spectra
  4. Asteroid Data Analysis (image analysis)

Stars 101

  1. Star Formation and stellar structure
  2. Stellar properties and classification (Cannon Scale)
  3. Light Curves & Spectroscopy
  4. The Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram (data analysis)

Galaxies 101

  1. Milky Way as Model
  2. Galactic Classification
  3. Galactic Structure & Properties
  4. Analysis of Galaxies (image and data analysis)

How to read scientific papers.

Learning to read scientific papers and glean useful information is a skill a new scientist must develop. Often, papers are opaque and esoteric. You might understand one thing and be confused by the next sentence. Learning to interpret plots and diagrams is also key to using existing research. Going over papers with peers can be very helpful.

Coding resources for astronomical computing using Python.