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Girls experience astronomy through GEMS program

At the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), stargazing is going on in broad daylight.

For the second consecutive year, the Girls Engaged in Math and Science (GEMS) program at NCSA is partnered with the Department of Astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to bring grid-based digital astronomy within reach for about 40 local middle-school-aged girls.

The GEMS program was created in 1994 through a partnership of the Champaign Community Unit School District and NCSA to encourage local girls to consider a wide range of mathematics and science-oriented careers. Recently, GEMS has turned its focus to the subject of astronomy, making use of the largest-ever digital astronomy database, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

The SDSS hosts an easily accessible public data interface, known as the SkyServer, and a wide range of research projects appropriate for students in grades 5-12. Over the course of the GEMS after-school program and summer camp, the girls are provided with laptops to take on a number of projects investigating the content and large-scale structure of the universe. These projects include making multi-wavelength images of galaxies, measuring the colors of stars and quasars, detecting asteroids and black holes, and even measuring the expansion of the Universe—all drawing on the same data used by professional astronomers.

“It’s really great to see girls emulating real astronomy research and enjoying it so much,” notes the GEMS program director, Edee Wiziecki.

An additional goal of GEMS is to introduce the girls to successful female astronomers. The past two years, GEMS has hosted local scientists and video-conferenced with others from as far away as England and Australia.

“The girls get to meet so many women in astronomy, giving them real role models in the field, and that may be the best part.” explains postdoctoral researcher and GEMS co-lead, Brian Wilhite.

As the GEMS program grows, so do its activities to include the use of emerging technologies and communication tools such as the Access Grid. The Girls on the Grid component of GEMS uses Access Grid technology to link girls in grades 6-12 to peers, scientists, and leading women in science and mathematics worldwide.

GEMS is directed by Edee Wiziecki of NCSA, and funding is provided by NASA through a grant to Robert Brunner of the Department of Astronomy. The GEMS digital astronomy program is designed and led by PhD student Britt Lundgren and postdoctoral researcher Brian Wilhite.

For more information on the GEMS digital astronomy program, please visit:

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