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La Jolla High science teacher chosen for NASA education program to help her and students reach for the stars

La Jolla High School science teacher Rosina Garcia attended the American Astronomical Society's 2023 meeting in Seattle.
La Jolla High School science teacher Rosina Garcia attended the American Astronomical Society’s 2023 meeting in Seattle this week as part of the NASA/IPAC (Infrared Processing & Analysis Center) Teacher Archive Research Program.
(Provided by Rosina Garcia)

Rosina Garcia is partnering with a small group of other educators and an astronomer for an original, year-long research project on star formation.

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A La Jolla High School science teacher has embarked on her first week of a NASA research project to explore astronomy questions and expand her teaching.

Rosina Garcia, who has taught biology for two years and the capstone course in the biomedical science pathway program at La Jolla High for a year after teaching middle school science in City Heights for three years, attended the 2023 meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle on Jan. 8-12 as part of the NASA/IPAC (Infrared Processing & Analysis Center) Teacher Archive Research Program, or NITARP.

NITARP partners small groups of educators with an astronomer for original, year-long research projects. At the AAS meeting, the educators from the 2022 class, along with some of their students, presented the results of their work from the past year while the members of the new cohort for 2023 met their teams and launched their own projects.

Garcia is on a team of four teachers and one mentor teacher working with IPAC’s Luisa Rebull, who researches how stars form.

IPAC, based at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in Pasadena, leads the program. Teams use data from the NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive, NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database and NASA Exoplanet Archive — all based at IPAC — and other NASA archive holdings. Funding comes from the NASA Astrophysics Data Program.

Rebull, who runs NITARP, said the program aims to help science teachers “experience real science.”

“We would never expect a school’s football coach to coach football having never played the game,” she said. “Yet many science teachers are being asked to teach science having never actually done science.”

Rosina Garcia's NITARP research project will be on young stellar objects, "basically just baby stars,” she says.
(Provided by Rosina Garcia)

Rebull said many states have adopted Next Generation Science Standards, which ask teachers to teach science “using methods that approximate more real science that many teachers did not learn when they went to school themselves.”

NITARP is important, she said, because “if we change the way teachers think about science ... about how to use real data in the classroom, then we impact the students they have this year, next year, the entirety of their careers, and that’s a pretty powerful leveraging effect.”

Garcia said she applied for NITARP after reading about it in a NASA newsletter. “I love science and it seemed like a great opportunity,” she said.

“As a teacher, I feel like our identities are so closely tied to being a teacher. [NITARP] lets me explore another part of myself, which is being a scientist.”

— Rosina Garcia

NITARP has had 140 educators (mostly high school teachers, with a few middle school and community college instructors) participate since its inception in 2004.

Rebull said four or five times more teachers typically apply for the program nationwide than there are spots.

“The competition for each spot is fierce,” she said.

Once team members gather at the AAS meeting and attend other discussions and meetings, they return to their schools and work with mentors using remote tools to write a proposal for their projects.

Garcia’s NITARP project “is going to be related to what Dr. Rebull studies, which is young stellar objects,” Garcia said. “We are going to be using Spitzer [Space] Telescope archival data to identify young stellar objects, which are basically just baby stars.”

Garcia’s team will look at the objects’ formation and data to learn about star and planet formation to better understand our solar system, she said.

The proposals are reviewed by astrophysicists and educators, Rebull said, and the teachers respond to reviewer comments before going to Caltech for a week in the summer along with two of their students.

“They work really intensively for four days,” Rebull said, “and they go home and keep working remotely and then they have to submit abstracts to the AAS.”

The teachers in the current cohort will present their results with their students at the 2024 AAS winter meeting in New Orleans.

Garcia, who also coaches cross country, track and academic league teams at La Jolla High, said she hasn’t yet chosen which students will accompany her. She plans to first pitch the project to the school’s physics and astronomy clubs.

“We want students who are dedicated and interested and committed to this project,” Garcia said. “It would be a full year of work.”

Garcia, who studied earth science at UC San Diego, said she’s excited to “delve into the research aspects, because as a teacher, I feel like our identities are so closely tied to being a teacher. [NITARP] lets me explore another part of myself, which is being a scientist.”

For more information about NITARP, visit nitarp.ipac.caltech.edu.