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Illinois teacher aims for stars in research program

Tri-Valley High School advanced physics teacher Jeff Pinter, left, trains student Lucas Burgaard during an experiment with Molde van de Graaf during a class at the school in Downs, Illinois, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (David Proeber/Pantgraf via AP)

Tri-Valley High School advanced physics teacher Jeff Pinter, left, trains student Lucas Burgaard during an experiment with Molde van de Graaf during a class at the school in Downs, Illinois, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (David Proeber/Pantgraf via AP)

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There’s just something about NASA and astronomy that attracts students, said Jeff Pinter, a Tri-Valley High School teacher. Their interest, in turn, pays his own energy to the subject.

“The more you learn about it, the more you will enjoy it,” he told The Pantagraph.

Pinter hopes to bring more of this learning to students through a project he will complete through the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP). The program gives high school teachers an opportunity to work with researchers at the National Astronomy Laboratories on a project using data collected by telescopes. Then teachers bring back what they have learned to improve their own teaching and share it with other teachers in their area.

“We’re kind of ambassadors after this is over,” Pinter said.

He will work with Varoujan Gorjian, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. He also works with three other teachers, including a mentor teacher. The mentor teachers have already completed the program and helped the other teachers. Pinter said the system provides useful advice and structure.

The program uses current data collected from telescopes and emphasizes conducting original research, not working through prepared lab projects or re-executing previous research projects, the program’s website says. It is operated by NASA’s Spitzer Science and Infrared Processing and Analysis Center.

An earlier version of the program, called the Spitzer Space Telescope Research Program for Educators and Students, began in 2004. The name changed in 2009 to reflect changing funding. Since the programme’s inception, 130 teachers have undertaken research projects. Pinter is the first from Illinois.

Besides Pinter’s group, another group of four teachers and a researcher will work throughout the year.

He said Pinter’s group will use existing data to search for terrestrial planets around red dwarf stars. Planets cause such systems to emit additional infrared radiation.

Pinter said the search for exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, is a hot topic in astronomy right now. The project could be used as baseline work for future research with the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope. The new telescope has better infrared vision than the Hubble telescope.

NASA has announced that the new telescope has reached its final orbit, about a million miles from Earth. It was launched in late December.

We are one step closer to unlocking the secrets of the universe. I can’t wait to see the first new Web views of the universe this summer! ‘ said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

There are also opportunities for students to get involved, he said, although Pinter isn’t yet sure exactly what that would look like.

“I’ve already talked about research in some of my classes,” he said.

Pinter’s educational approach also puts science in the hands of students. On a recent visit, Tri-Valley High School students Anthony Decker, Lucas Burgaard, River Wilson, and Adam Hopf experimented with a static electricity generator, watching how different organisms interact.

Pinter said that astronomy requires a different approach than many high school science courses. Given the difficulties of bringing astronomy experiments to Earth’s surface, let alone in the classroom, there is a level of creativity required that the students seem to enjoy.

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He said the project would be the real Pinter research project in astronomy. He was raised in Gibson and then studied chemistry and teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s been on TVHS since 2001.

The program runs from January to January. While most previous participants were able to meet their teams in person at the start of the project, this year they have had to make do with remote meetings, says IAPC’s announcement of the new group. They hope to meet face-to-face in January to present the findings.

Pinter is looking forward to participating in the research, but is also happy to be able to use the experience to help other district teachers and in his classroom.

“(I hope) to bring to children a sense of wonder and wonder, the scientific method,” Pinter said.

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