CAST 2017: Astronomy Labs Using Real Data

I’ll be presenting the same thing twice at CAST 2017!  Learn how actual astronomical data products from Caltech, NASA, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey can be used for inquiry-based investigations to cover astronomy 101 topics so that students can have authentic research experiences right in the classroom. The session will focus on using web-based data tools from IPAC’s Infrared Science Archive (IRSA) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) for doing investigations such as creating a color-magnitude diagram for star clusters and creating three-color astronomical images using actual data. Teachers will learn how to implement the demonstrated lab activities in their own classrooms and how to make their own investigations to teach topics about stars and galaxies in astronomy courses at the secondary level. The activities provided all use only a web browser with no extra software required and all resources are freely available to use for everyone.

The presentation is available here as a Google Slides Presentation:

The lab instructions are available here as a Google Doc:

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Great American Eclipse 2017

On August 21st, 2017 the shadow of the moon will race across a huge swatch of the U.S. Some people don’t know it is a solar eclipse. And for a small, seventy-mile wide line, people will see the sun completely disappear for a few minutes. A solar eclipse is when the sun is blocked by the moon and a lunar eclipse is when the shadow of the Earth is cast on the moon. So why so much interest?

There is a fantastic cosmic coincidence that the moon and the sun are the same size in the sky but it works to our advantage. But here’s the thing, if all the orbits were aligned perfectly, we would have eclipses every month. Instead, a total solar eclipse for your location is very rare. In fact, no one you know has likely ever experienced one. But being rare isn’t the only astounding thing. The entire lower 48 United States will experience a partial eclipse and that is a very cool astronomical event. But for people in the path of totality, the experience isn’t just scientific or photographic – it is bizarre, overwhelming, beautiful, and unforgettable.

Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse” has this to say about seeing a partial eclipse versus a total eclipse “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”

But maybe you can’t get away from wherever you are. You can still expect to see a partial solar eclipse. The moon will seem to gobble up the sun. You will see a crescent sun rather than a crescent moon. People in Houston can head to either location of the Houston Museum of Natural Science where local astronomy clubs will have equipment setup to safely view the eclipse.

ISO-approved Eclipse Glasses

Remember, looking at the sun with a telescope or binoculars without the correct filter will cause eye damage and likely blindness. There is no shortage of options though. You can get eclipse glasses with ISO-approved mylar film or you can go low tech and poke a hole in a box and project the image of the eclipse onto the inside shaded surface.

In fact, projecting an image of the eclipse means you can share the view without a lot of people all at once.

But if you are in the path of totality, experienced observes all say the same thing: just watch. Don’t try to do photography. Don’t try to set up a fancy observing rig. Be prepared to be awed and silent and just experience the unmatched otherness of night erupting into an otherwise bright and sunny day. Totality is less than 3 minutes. This is a time for you to just experience something otherworldly right here on Earth.

No matter where you are, take some time on Monday August 21st and try to view the eclipse. You will be sharing in a huge cultural event and will learn some cool stuff about the solar system. And if you miss the eclipse, there will a total solar eclipse visible in Texas in 2024!

Jimmy Newland is a member of the Houston Astronomical Society and an astronomy teacher at Bellaire High School in Houston ISD.


Galaxies Galore Teacher Workshop 2017

View of Mt. Fowlkes and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope from the catwalk of the Harlan J Smith 2.7m telescope  on Mt. Locke.
View from catwalk of Otto Struve telescope looking towards Harlan J Smith and Hobby-Eberly telescopes.
Dr. Keely Finkelstein introduces an inquiry activity about the Coma cluster of galaxies

McDonald Observatory has a lot to offer teachers.

The Galaxies Galore teacher workshop at McDonald Observatory ran from June 19-21, 2017. I was lucky enough to be the master teacher for the event. A master teacher’s role is to help the observatory staff and astronomers run the event. I wanted to get my thoughts all in one place to share with others how extraordinary these learning opportunities can be.  Thanks to Dr. Keely Finkelstein from UT Astronomy and Marc Wetzel from McDonald Observatory for giving me this chance to be the master teacher for a workshop.

The workshop has 4 big things to offer a science teacher:

  • Behind-the-scenes tours of research telescopes
  • Observing on high-quality observatory telescopes
  • Direct access to scientists and their tools and research
  • Inquiry-based classroom activities from a variety of sources

Tours of research-grade observatories

The location in the West Texas Davis mountains is beautiful and unlike anything else in other parts of the state. The skies are dark and usually clear during the night. It’s a mountain desert environment in a very sparsely populated part of Texas.

The three big research telescopes are the Otto Struve 2.1m telescope, which was the original structure and the only one when the observatory opened, the Harlan J Smith 2.7m telescope, and the Hobby-Eberly telescope (or HET).

Otto Struve 2.1m telescope in stowed position showing photometric instrumentation at cassegrain focus.
Researcher Zach Vanderbosch describes the photometric detector attached to the 2.1m at cassegrain focus used to study pulsating white dwarfs.
Otto Struve 2.1m telescope control room during calibration.


Hobby-Eberly Telescope and visitor gallery
Mechanical engineer Emily Schroeder-Mrozinski gives a tour of the control room of the HET.
Harlan J Smith 2.7m telescope in stowed position.
Marc Wetzel gives a tour of the 2.7m Harlan J Smith telescope to our participants.

Hands-on observing with on-site and personal telescopes

A few participants had telescopes and binoculars, and I brought my 10-inch Dobsonian reflecting telescope as well, but the workhorse of our observing was the 0.9m (36″) reflecting telescope on Mt. Locke just down the hill from the 2.1m building. This telescope has a fantastic singing slewing system that makes it seem like the telescope is humming a tune when slewing to a target. The skies are dark out in West Texas and in just 2 hours we saw all the targets listed in the table below. Marc Wetzel also opened up the 16″ telescope he uses for classroom video conferencing so we could view Venus during the day and do some solar viewing.

Observing List for June 20 2017 (note 2 daytime targets)

Sun Visitor Center 3-inch / Hydrogen-alpha, and white light filters Solar system object
Venus (daytime) Visitor Center 16-inch / 15mm (Tuesday June 20th, 9:30am) Solar system object
Jupiter 36-inch / 42mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm Solar system object
Saturn 36-inch / 42mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm Solar system object
Albireo 10-inch Dob / 15mm Double star
M 6 / Butterfly Cluster Meade ETX 70 / 9mm Open star cluster
M 7 / Ptolemy Cluster 10-inch Dob / 15mm Open star cluster
M 8 / Lagoon Nebula Meade ETX 70 / 9mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm Emission nebula
M 13 / Hercules Cluster 36-inch / 42mm Globular star cluster
M 17 / Swan Nebula 10-inch Dob / 15mm Emission nebula
M 51 / Whirlpool Galaxy 36-inch / 42mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm Spiral galaxy
M 57 / Ring Nebula 36-inch / 27mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm Planetary nebula
M 87 36-inch / 30mm Elliptical galaxy
M 101 / Pinwheel Galaxy 36-inch / 42mm Spiral galaxy
M 104 / Sombrero Galaxy 36-inch / 42mm Spiral galaxy
NGC 4565 / Needle Galaxy 36-inch / 42mm Spiral galaxy
NGC 6543 / Cat’s Eye Nebula 36-inch / 27mm Planetary nebula
Omega Centauri 10-inch Dob / 15mm Globular star cluster

Teachers get access to astronomers and their research

Participants in these workshops stay where the astronomers stay and eat meals with them. They get to hear from the scientists directly. We also tour the various telescopes and hear from the current researcher on site. There are also video conference sessions with scientists about topics related to the workshop. It’s an up-close view of the modern science of astronomy. This workshop was part of a program associated with galactic astronomer Dr. Steve Finkelstein at UT Astronomy and was galaxy-themed.

Dr. Steve Finkelstein gave a remote talk on galactic astronomy.
Marc Wetzel shared the work he and Bill Wren do to combat light pollution for the observatory.

Participants learn inquiry-based astronomy lessons

Teaching using inquiry-based lessons can be tough. The whole workshop models inquiry-based teaching and participants actually work through activities and lessons they can use with their students. All the material plus much, much more goes home with the teachers so they can use the material in class with their own students.

Building Galileoscopes
Participants explore inquiry-based activities about multi-wavelength astronomy.
Dr. Keely Finkelstein sets up an inquiry lesson on the Coma cluster of galaxies.

Houston Mini Maker Faire 2016 Recap

Houston Mini Maker Faire was an awesome experience. Melody Lam, Brandon Plost, and I setup a booth with all of our creations. We had lots of visitors and lots of Bellaire students came out too. The Bellaire robotics team has their own booth as well.

I will be back next year with something new to show off.

Brandon greets his fans
Brandon greets his fans
Some of our projects
Some of our projects
Temperature and Light Datalogger displaying on Raspberry Pi
Our Temperature and Light Datalogger displaying on Raspberry Pi
Lam codes an LED matrix display
Lam codes an LED matrix display to show images
More projects
More of our projects
Brandon's AWESOME Raspberry Pi Game Cabinet
Brandon’s AWESOME Raspberry Pi Game Cabinet
Game cabinet innards
Game cabinet innards
Yifan plays a game
Yifan plays a game on Brandon’s arcade system
Robotics members learn to sew
Jenny and Cassie (robotics team members) learn to make stuff
3D rendered realtime topographic display using sand
3D rendered realtime topographic display using sand
Jonathan talks about Houston Aerospace Scholars
Jonathan talks about Houston Aerospace Scholars
Lego Bridge
Lego Bridge
Lego Rey and BB8
Lego Rey and BB8
Lego trees and splash
Lego trees and splash
Lego Wind Turbine
Lego Wind Turbine
Green R2D2 from area R2D2 building club
Green R2D2 from area R2D2 building club
Vintage Amplifier
Vintage Amplifier

Houston Mini Maker Faire 2016

Houston Mini Maker Faire 2016!

My name is Jimmy Newland and I am a physics, astronomy, and (sometimes) computer science teacher at Bellaire High School. Over the last few years, I’ve been learning electronics. This stuff fits in perfectly with computer science and physics. I’ve been experimenting with labs for physics based on Arduinos and sensors. I was inspired after reading an article in The Physics Teacher about a lab studying simple harmonic motion using an Arduino board and an ultrasonic sensor. There is also another from the same author about an RC circuit analysis lab using Arduinos.

Check out the physics labs I’ve cobbled together that have students using Arduino boards and sensors to gather data from the real world.

I’ve also made a hobby out of electronics and was very excited to partner with 2 of my former students to display our handiwork at the 2016 Houston Mini Maker Faire.

Here are a few of my creations:

  • Binary Minute Timer
  • VU Meter (the knob goes to 11!)
  • Neopixel Ring Clock with GPS and RTC
  • Spooky Eyes Pumpkin


Epic National Park Adventure 2016!

All the places we went!

The Newland family took a 7 day road trip through almost all of New Mexico to visit a range of national parks, national monuments, and national forests. We threw in a state park and a city park for good measure.

Google has a way to produce custom maps so we put together a list just to help us remember all the cool places we went.

These photos are in reverse chronological order and are just a small sample of the whole album.


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Creating Astronomical Images

(Newland is boring – skip right to the coding!)

In the summer of 2015, I got a fantastic chance to help out with as astronomical observing run courtesy of UT Austin and McDonald Observatory (thanks to Dr. Keely Finkelstein), not to mention the generous support of our research advisor, Dr. Chris Sneden and his post doctoral student, Dr. Monika Adamow. We also had hands-on image processing lessons from McDonald Observatory education and public outreach staff members Dr. Judy Meyer, Rachel Fuechsl, and Marc Wetzel.

LCOGT ELP Node at McDonald Observatory
LCOGT ELP Node with Mt Locke in the background
The LCOGT ELP Node robotic telescope and camera
Panorama of LCOGT ELP Node 1 meter telescope

We learned to use the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope which allows an observer to queue up observations of targets with parameters such as specific filters and time exposures. Then, what ever node has a clear view of that target within the time frame will take the exposures and put the raw data on the observers account. The raw FITS files can be easily converted into either TIFF or JPEG files which can be more easily worked with using image software.

For the HOC 2014, a group from Google CS First,, AAS, NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and created an interactive lesson teaching the basics of astronomical imaging, the basics of the computer science of imaging, and some computational thinking. Students learn to combine images of different colors to make a new image. They also learn to use color values and unique combinations to make their own original astronomical image.

HOC 2014 Coding Example
HOC 2014 Coding Example

I decided to take some raw data from the trip and have the students do a little web-based coding to demonstrate combining images using different filters. This will be a part of the Hour of Code 2015 event for my astronomy classes.

Hour Of Code Project: Start Here!

  • Recolor – try creating a color by stimulating your own red, green, and blue eye cells with an intensity between 0 and 255. This is how computers create color.
  • Scene – explore filters and color-shifting using a coloring function that maps input RGB colors to an output RGB colors.
  • Flower – mash up two images using a coloring function to mix red, green, and blue light from multiple images.
  • Bubble Nebula -see how astronomers combine different images to create a single colored image of a nebula (completed example)
  • M101 – try to use the r, v, and b to get an image of a galaxy
  • North America Nebula – try to use the r, v, and b to get an image of a nebula
  • supernova – see how astronomers combine different images to create a single colored image of the leftovers from a star exploding
  • starforming – explore a deep six-wavelength stack of astronomy images, and create your own unique never-before-published RGB image of a star-forming region
  • keplersnova – In 1604 a star suddenly exploded and became the brightest object in the sky. Examine the remnants of the supernova observed by Kepler in the 17th century
  • blackhole – See x-ray data revealing a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy

Here are my attempts to create some pretty pictures. I converted the FITS files from LCOGT into TIFF files which I combined and processed using Photoshop. This takes more effort than just combing the colored images but aren’t they pretty?

Bubble nebula made with Photoshop & FITS Liberator
Messier 101 (pinwheel galaxy) made with Photoshop and FITS Liberator
Messier 18 processed with Photoshop and FITS Liberator
Heart of North American Nebula processed w/ Photoshop & FITS Liberator

Using GlowScript in AP Physics C

Rather than work on THIS week, I spent some time today trying to put together something for the Hour Of Code for my AP Physics C class. I am a fan of Rhett Allain at Wired’s Dot Physics. He teaches using a version of Python (really VPython) called GlowScript and I have been working up some code using some of the video analysis labs we’ve done in AP Physics. First, here is the video upon which this code is based. Check that out first. This is one of the fantastic direct measurement video labs from Peter Bohacek and has built-in controls and measurement tools. Those by themselves are fantastic for teaching and learning physics.

Here is my code written and edited at Give it a try and compare the result to the video. Not too bad. Now I think the cool bit will having the students do similar things. This is a PERFECT activity for Hour of Code coming up in December.
Here is the code, but although the link above is working, the code below may not.

For astro, I’m going to modify an activity from HOC 2014 from AAS, PencilCode, Google CS First, and