West Ranch teacher receives large grant to expand astronomy program

West Ranch students fill a high altitude balloon, or HAB, as they prepare to launch the balloon and its payload at the school on Monday, May 15, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal
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A quarter-million dollar educational grant is allowing students at West Ranch High School to explore careers in astronomy and send experiments to the International Space Station.

“It’s called a Specialized Secondary Program grant and it is a cohorted, multiyear grant that is specifically for secondary programs,” said West Ranch earth science and astronomy teacher Christine Hirst who is using the grant to develop the school’s multiyear astronomy program. “It’s to start new, innovative, career-based programs at the secondary level and mine is the only science specific one… They only select a certain amount each year and it’s funded through the California Department of Education.

With help from Mariane Doyle, the William S. Hart Union High School District’s director of career technical and adult education, Hirst decided to apply for the grant a few years ago.

When she learned that she received the grant funding, Hirst, who has taught at West Ranch for more than 11 years, said it was a dream come true.

“I started the astronomy class in 2009, so this has been a long time coming,” Hirst said. “This is my dream to have a program that allows students to be the owners of their learning and explore space in the process.”

For years, Hirst has taught the school’s astronomy course and expanded the class to include the student’s annual High-Altitude Weather Balloon project, where students send different payloads and experiments to the upper edges of the earth’s atmosphere.

The astronomy course and project gave students an exposure to astronomy, but this new grant from the state is now allowing students to explore the science field in-depth as a career path for their futures.

“What’s unique to the program is that the kids that are taking it want to explore astronomy fields,” said Hirst, who is also an adjunct astronomy teacher at College of the Canyons. “It’s really gearing kids toward fields of astronomy specifically.”

Currently, Hirst is in the second year of the grant process where she is implementing the honors curriculum she spent a year planning and developing.

“The first year is to plan and I’m currently in the second year, the implementation year,” she said. “This is my first year teaching honors astronomy.”

With the grant money this year, Hirst is purchasing materials and contracts that will help her as she starts her third astronomy course next year called Space Missions.

During this ongoing course sequence, students will have ground-based experience, participate in the annual weather balloon project, 3D print experiments, study human space flight, lead community outreach activities and participate in a NASA design challenge.

“One thing I’m purchasing is a contract with a company called Dream Up, where we will be able to send experiments to the Space Station,” Hirst said. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.”

Hirst is also purchasing a contract with Beyond Learning to conduct student experiments on satellites in space and incorporate her own knowledge as a JPL/Solar System Ambassador.

“They have controlled q-sat (satellite) stops in space,” Hirst said. “We get a week to conduct any experiments we want aboard that satellite.”

West Ranch students and their teacher, Christine Hirst, gather to do a group cheer ahead of their high altitude balloon launch on Monday, May 15, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

As she continues to grow and expand the astronomy program, Hirst also hopes to develop a relationship with Rancho Pico Junior High School across the street and increase the program’s presence in the community.

She is starting this by welcoming the community to West Ranch High School’s weather balloon launch May 3 and to a Space Night at Castaic Sports Complex on April 23.

“I’d love to have working relationships with the community where my students host events,” Hirst said. “I’d like to take this beyond the high school make it a community endeavor that benefits everyone so everyone can be exposed to what they’re learning.”

Through these unique experiments and learning opportunities, Hirst hopes to build up West Ranch’s astronomy program and welcome new scientists into the program.

“We’re all curious about the stars and the moon… but somewhere along the way that fascination turns to career focus and somehow astronomy gets pushed out of that,” Hirst said. “I want students to know that you can be curious about something and make a living and pursue that in your life. It’s about reigniting that curiosity and natural fascination that someone has.”

Hirst also hopes to help foster students’ personal growth and teach students about the benefits of understanding space technology and scientific experiments.

“Regardless of the field that they go into, being able to carry out an investigation to determine fact from belief and truth from fact is a really valuable tool,” Hirst said. “It (astronomy) values not just the STEM students, but all students because they have these large projects that they complete that are entirely their own.”

[email protected]
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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