Sunday, January 3, 2010

Teacher reaches for the stars

Lincoln-Way North High School physics, astronomy and metrology teacher Margaret Piper is heading to Washington, D.C., this weekend to participate in a NASA program.

The Frankfort school teacher was one of 10 teachers chosen to participate in the NASA Infrared Processing and Analysis Center's Teacher Archive Research Program.

The Orland Park resident said her love of learning landed her this opportunity.

The eighth child in a family of 11 children, Piper said she always had an appreciation for the sciences.

"When I was a just a child we were always involved in science. My dad was a landscaper, and he invented a lot of his own parts."

Now a mother of four children, Piper, 49, will analyze archived data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, along with other NASA archive findings. Piper said she is the only teacher from the Southland taking part in the program.

The former research engineer, who at one time worked on Boeing 767 airplanes, said what she will be doing is similar to taking pictures that have been uploaded to the computer and looking at them.

"Scientists have collected data with the Spitzer (Space Telescope), but haven't had time to go through and sort through all of it," she said.

The Spitzer Space Telescope began in 2003 to help see light coming from space in the infrared region, Piper said.

The telescope will help researchers see things in space they couldn't see before, including a group of young stars similar to the sun hiding behind a cloud of dust, Piper said.

The other goal of the program is to get teachers to infuse their research experiences into the classroom, Piper said.

"The whole idea of the program is to get teachers involved to do this research, get the work done, and get students interested in science," Piper said. "The more I know about science, the better I can tell the students. It's kind of like a pathway."

Luisa Rebull, a Spitzer teacher research program manager, told Piper to submit an application for the program after watching her Hands on Universe presentation at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin.

About once a month, Piper said she travels to the observatory to participate in an education program with other teachers who teach hearing impaired and blind children about outer space.

When Piper learned she was accepted, she said her family was excited for her, but not surprised.

"They think it's pretty cool, but they're use to me doing stuff like this."

While in Washington, D.C., meeting with other teachers and astronomers, Piper will learn more about the program. She will continue her research throughout the school year and communicate with other teachers using phone conferences and e-mail.

Piper said the program will pay for her and two students to attend a three-day conference this summer in California to work on more data. Although she hasn't chosen who she'll take, she said she does have some students in mind.

"This is really cool stuff if you think this is cool stuff," she said. "The students won't get any college credit, but if you put it on an application, it's pretty cool."

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