Bringing Physics of the Sun to the Public

For centuries, astronomy has captured theimagination and focus of some of history's greatest philosophers.Indeed, the colorful pictures available via the WWW from satelliteobservatories are inspirational for both their intriguing beauty andscientific insight. However, the task of matching beauty and scienceis often as difficult as marrying industry and education.

Despite the challenge of combining very differentprofessional cultures, the Yohkoh Public Outreach Project (YPOP)represents a dynamic and fruitful collaboration for both science andeducation. Five faculty and graduate students at Montana StateUniversity, six industrial scientists at Lockheed Martin Space andAstrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif., and six elementary andsecondary school teachers from across the country partnered to createthe entity known as YPOP (pronounced Why-Pop).

This article describes the lessons we have learnedin conducting this collaborative project. Funded by a NASA LearningTechnology Project (LTP) program (NASA LTP #SK30G4410R), the YohkohMovie Theater Internet Site is found at mirrored at

Monitoring the Atmosphere

One can easily see from Figure One, a picture ofthe Sun's X-ray emission, the Sun is anything but a quiet ball ofburning gas that many people take for granted. Plasma, heated tomillions of degrees, forms into arches, fountains and winding streamsin a dance that changes from minute to minute. Fortunately, the WWWhas proven to be an excellent medium for both students and scientiststo observe and monitor the ever-changing extended solar atmosphereknown as the corona.

Images like these are beamed down to Earth fromthe Yohkoh satellite's Soft X-ray Telescope (SXT) to a downlink inJapan and immediately transported to the Internet. Yohkoh is ajointly funded U.S. and Japanese space agency satellite that keepsconstant vigil over the Sun's activity; "yohkoh" (pronounced Yo-Ko)is the Japanese word for "sunbeam."

Launched in 1991, the satellite is watching theSun change from its relative inactive phase to its most active phaseas it moves through its 11 year cycle of low activity to highactivity and back to low activity. The next solar maximum ispredicted for 2001-2002 when Earth observers will likely observe morenumerous sunspots and more frequent displays of the aurora borealis&emdash; the northern lights. It was a universal desire to bring theworld this active picture of the dynamic Sun and the excitement ofcontemporary science investigations that began the Yohkoh PublicOutreach Project.

Collaboration of Cultures

The challenge of bringing the cultures ofuniversity academics, industrial scientists and public schoolteachers together is somewhat difficult to characterize. The mostobvious difficulty is that each of these groups deals with widelydiffering individuals on a day-to-day basis. For example, universityacademics often interact with motivated undergraduate and graduatestudents with an experience base of physical intuition developed overyears of interacting with the physical world.

On the other hand, elementary and secondaryteachers interact with students who have very limited vocabulary,world experience and attention spans and, furthermore, often havedifficulty separating fact from fiction. Still even farther removed,many industrial scientists only interact with other industrialscientists and vastly overestimate the public's general scienceliteracy and the tenacity for readers to read long textnarratives.

In fact, these vast differences in dailyinteractions lead to a more comprehensive and user-friendly WWW sitethan any of us working individually could have created. Otherelements of success that grew out of the YPOP effortinclude:

• Face to Face Meetings, Major and MinorMilestones and Action Items. The project had 10 major milestones tobe met by a team separated by almost 2000 miles. Althoughface-to-face meetings were expensive, we found them to be quitevaluable. We met quarterly to talk about site structure, refocusdeveloping ideas and set minor milestones. It was often easy to letideas grow exponentially and teleconferences didn't always helpprovide focus. Probably the most useful approach was to assign actionitems for each individual with highly publicized due dates. At eachmeeting, action item completion was reviewed among the entire groupand these effectively motivated individuals to get tasks donepromptly.

• Proximity to the Data. In this project,there were hundreds of megabytes of image data available. A criticalaspect was to have the satellite computer programmer on the projectteam who dealt with the raw data at the table. This allowed forimages to be quickly tailor-made for particular applications withouta great deal of hassle. The most exciting aspect of conducting a WWWproject such as this is probably the availability and frequent use ofreal-time data.

• Narrowly Defined Goal and Audience. Thegoal of the YPOP project was to make Yohkoh data accessible to thepublic. This meant that "the public" had to be defined. We definedthe public as a parent "surfing" with their child, an interestedamateur astronomer with little background, and a bright eighth gradestudent. This meant that we continuously had to monitor thereading-level of the material we were writing. Everyone on the teamwrote at a level that was more complex than a newspaper on the first(and often third) drafts. We developed a "mini-site" specifically forteachers and a different one for scientists to access data. Ingeneral, the lesson learned about audiences was that when there is apotential for multiple audience, you need multiple items; do not tryto do two for one.

• Well Defined Site Structure &emdash; ATheme. The project really never took off until we had a unifiedvision as expressed through a theme. Solar physics just isn't a themethat immediately grabs people's attention; instead we use the themeof a movie theater. We selected the movie theater because the realhighlight of the project is a long-term, scientific-quality, onlinemovie of the Sun. So, each aspect of the site is created to beconsistent with this theme. There is a program that contains asite-map, a lobby that has attraction posters, a projection room thathas background information on the satellite, an interview with thestar of the movie (the Sun) and a solar classroom. Even though theclassroom d'esn't fit this model exactly, it serves a purpose ofgiving the specific audience of teachers a place to go immediately.The most important part of the structure was that it revealed"visible information gaps." These gaps became a focus because theyneeded to be filled and this helped project team members to see whatneeded to be done. Team member roles were initially defined in theproject, but having "obvious gaps" was much more compelling forindividuals to take on responsibilities and create tasks to bedone.

• Well Defined Site Structure &emdash; TheMechanics. After the theme was developed, a site structure, namingconventions, background conventions and the like were not onlyimportant, but actually strict rules made the entire process goquicker and easier. Although somewhat sterile, we decided on whitebackgrounds with black text, except for pages that were mostly imagesusing black backgrounds. We somewhat arbitrarily decided that thelowest common technology factor for most users was a 486 MHz machinewith 16 MB of RAM and a 14.4 modem. Accordingly, we decided to avoid"frames" and Java on our pages. These guidelines also helped provideuniformity throughout the site.

• Time for Reflection. We've learned that acomprehensive WWW site development can not be created effectively inonly six months. It takes years to revamp ideas and see whattechnology dominates (recall: blinking text, frames, Active-X andeight-track tapes). In addition to the quickly changing technology,it takes time to stabilize group ideas, cement content themes andaccurately define group roles. Also, the debugging and proofingprocess takes an enormous amount of time.

Lessons Learned from Teachers

An unexpectedly valuable addition to YPOP was theinclusion of three elementary and three secondary school teachers.Although YPOP was much more focused on the general public than onclassrooms, these teachers' reviews and opinions had an enormousimpact on the site as a whole. These particular teacher-participantswere selected because of personal contacts. Once theteacher-participants overcame their initial reluctance to criticizethe "scientists," they left virtually no portion of the project URLunaffected. Many of the ideas listed below might be self-evident; butthey were nonetheless new to us:

• Unlimited Ideas. Early in the project, itwas decided to include two or three classroom lessons on the YPOPsite. After showing the teacher-participants the colorful and dynamicimages available and letting them brainstorm together for severaldays, the project ended up with nine classroom lessons. In fact, theteachers had so many good ideas, particularly about cross-curricularconnections, that we could have written lessons for several years tocome. For example, one of the WWW resources shows the currentlocation of the Yohkoh satellite on a world map. Teachers immediatelysuggested ways they could use this one resource to teach science,math, social studies, prediction, geography, creative writing, dayand night, and Newton's law of universal gravitation. However, theyalso emphatically believed that most teachers would not use theseexciting resources without sample lesson plans and scientificbackground. This countered our original notion that "if we build it,the teachers will use it." We learned that most classroom teachersare far too busy to create new lessons based on newly availableInternet data. If we wanted our data to be used in hundreds ofclassrooms, then we had to create the resources and infrastructure tomake it easy to adopt. For example, classroom-ready handouts forstudents needed to be online.

• Perspectives on Science Literacy. Theteacher-participants provided the project scientists particularinsight about at what level the general public can (or will) read.They provided software routines to check the "grade levelreadability" of the text and helped focus the lessons on the NRCNational Science Education Standards. We endeavored to write text atwhat we thought was the middle school level and consistently wrote atfar too high a level. More than anything, the teacher-participantskept emphasizing that a user, regardless of age, has to have a reasonor a quest in order to continue surfing the YPOP site. Thisencouraged us to use "leading questions" and prompts to "visittomorrow and look at new changes on the Sun" throughout thesite.

• Specific Grade Levels are Elusive. It seemsthat student ability and interest vary substantially. We learnedthat, with some effort, we could take a powerful lesson idea and aimit at a variety of levels: novice, intermediate and advanced. Thisalso allowed us to support parents surfing with their children andhome-schooled students who, to our surprise, often utilize YPOP forthe resources. This emphasized the need for creating hands-onactivities that required easily available and inexpensive resources.We learned to be much less concerned about what specific activitiesare designed for which grade levels and focused more on appropriatereading and conceptual levels instead of grade designations. See thebox below for sample learning activities.

• Multiple Formats Online. It was amazing tous to find out how diverse school computer and Internet resourcesare. We found that many teachers would print out everything, rarelyreading online. Alternatively, we discovered that many home-surferswould read material on screen. Therefore, we put lessons online inmultiple formats. One format was to use a single, long HTML pagedesigned to be printed easily. Another format was to have short,multiple pages in an electronic flip-book format. In several cases,we even included documents in word processing/spreadsheet format foreasy downloading. Our perspective was that if teachers could acquirethe materials electronically, then they could manipulate them asnecessary to make the lessons more appropriate for their particularlearning environment.

• Diversity of Users. Serendipitously, weinitially overlooked the world-wide audience of the World Wide Web.For example, when we designed sundials, we did not take into accountthat different plans would be needed for the Southern Hemisphere.Although arduous at times, it was exciting indeed to go back throughour site and add ALT tags for visually handicapped surfers, includeoptions for home school students, alter information for southernhemisphere users, and check for differences among MAC, PC, and UNIXusers. The teacher-participants helped us see that Internet userssometimes even print pages in landscape format unless requested to dootherwise.

Positive Feedback

In summary, clearly the most important aspect thatmade YPOP such a complete success was that the project broughttogether dedicated, self-motivated and flexible people. A diversityof ideas was key, but would have been moot if project participantswere not interested in working together. Personally, we all learnedabout other professional cultures and quickly became more sensitiveto a diversity of audiences. Indeed, both people inside and outsideof this NASA-funded program perceive the project as an overwhelmingsuccess. Today, YPOP receives 100,000 non-identical "hits" everymonth and our online guest book displays constant heart-warming andpositive feedback. It is our hope that we encourage visitors to comeback to the Yohkoh Movie Theater and keep watch over our dynamicSun.


This project received major funding from the NASALearning Technology Project (LTP) program (NASA LTP #SK30G4410R). Theimages used on the WWW site are from the Yohkoh Satellite launchedfrom Kagoshima, Japan on August 31, 1991. Yohkoh is a project of theInstitute for Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS). The spacecraftwas built in Japan and the observing instruments have contributionsfrom the U.S. and from the U.K.

Principal Investigators on YPOP were Dr. JimLemen, Lockheed Martin Palo Alto, and Dr. Loren Acton, Montana StateUniversity. Lockheed Martin participants were Keith Strong, DavidAlexander, Sam Freeland, Frank Friedlaender and Tom Metcalf. MontanaState University participants were David McKenzie, Michelle Larsonand Tim Slater. The project teacher-participants were: DonnaGovernor, Pensacola, FL; Dr. Elizabeth R'ettger, Chicago, IL; Dr.Marion French, Manhattan, KS; Keith G'ering, Chanute, KS; Dr. ClaudiaKhourey-Bowers, Canton, OH; and Joann Watson, Bozeman, MT. Additionalsupport was provided by Dr. Jeff Adams, Robert Fixen, Lee Slone andLeslie Thomas.


Tim Slater is a research assistant professor ofphysics at Montana State University. He serves as the Lead ProjectScientist at the MSU NASA Center for Educational Resources andconducts research on student misconceptions in astronomy. E-mail:[email protected]

Michelle Larson is a doctoral candidate in physics at Montana StateUniversity. She conducts research on neutron stars as well ascoordinates several astronomy and space science outreach projects forschools in Montana. E-mail: [email protected].

David McKenzie is a research scientist at Montana State University.He serves as a chief observer for the Yohkoh satellite SXT researchteam and is one of only a few scientists to ever view a solar eclipsein X-rays. E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.