Big Explosions and Strong Gravity

Mission Name:
Big Explosions and Strong Gravity

Project Description:
Big Explosions and Strong Gravity (BESG) is a curriculum for a day-long event for middle-school aged children in out-of-school-time to learn about supernovae and black holes through hands-on activities. The program was originally developed in 2004 in cooperation with the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland (GSCM) council as an event where Girl Scouts could spend a day doing a series of activities on spectroscopy, cosmic abundances, supernovae, and black holes, and then receive a patch for the back of their badge sashes. Professional astronomers, engineers, and graduate students ran the activities, giving the girls a chance to interact with professionals in science and technology (STEM) fields.

In 2007, a NASA ROSES E/PO supplemental grant set forth a 3-year plan for expanding BESG from a local program into one available to Girl Scout councils nationwide. During this time, a program manual was developed and the event was pilot tested at Girl Scout councils in other parts of the country, all with the assistance of an external evaluation partner to help guide the effort and ensure a quality product. The ROSES grant culminated in a 2010 summer workshop for Girl Scout trainers from around the country to disseminate the program as widely as possible among Girl Scout councils. In addition, the manual was put through NASA's Education Product Review and is approved for wide-spread dissemination.

During those 3 years, we identified a demand for such a program for a wider variety of audiences. While searching for Girl Scout councils to pilot the BESG program, we encountered various non-Girl Scout groups who expressed interest in pilot-testing for us. However, because of the narrow focus of the BESG pilot effort, they were not a suitable audience for us. Other Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) informal education offerings are available to a variety of audiences: afterschool providers, 4-H groups, teachers who run science clubs, museum staff, family groups, etc. However, these informal programs tend to be multi-session programs designed to be run over a prolonged period of time, rather than as a one-day event. When groups approached us for a program that fit within the single-day event model, we did not have anything specifically suited for that format.

BESG seemed like an ideal program to fill this evident need. While we had previously chosen to target girls due to their underrepresentation in science, and the framework and format for the day-long event that had been developed was narrowly targeted for the Girl Scouts, the activities themselves are gender-neutral. With some additional resources created to suit the needs of different audiences, and the refocusing of those resources that already exist, we believed that this program could be made suitable for the various audiences that might be interested in it. As such, we proposed for the expansion of the BESG curriculum and resources to meet the needs of a wider variety of informal education audiences as a part of the Physics of the Cosmos/Cosmic Origins E/PO plan.

Starting in FY12, we have worked to identify potential new audiences as well as their resource needs. The likely informal education groups that we will target are 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers. For the groups with needs that can reasonably be met in the context of this effort, we will conduct focus groups about their needs and the specific changes and additions that would need to be made to the existing BESG resources for their use.

One of the unique facets of BESG has always been its high level of scientist involvement. When we have run the program locally, we have been in an advantaged position of having many scientists, engineers, and grad students available and willing to volunteer. As we have expanded the program, we have recognized that not all Girl Scout councils are able to maintain quite the level of scientist involvement as we have here, and we expect that the same will frequently be true of many other informal audiences. One additional avenue we are exploring in our audience search is university and college physics or astronomy departments. These departments sometimes put on community events, and BESG could easily be used in such a setting. If it were possible, they would provide a very divergent audience for us from the informal education organizations, and would allow us to fully exploit the scientist involvement aspect. In addition, BESG would offer such departments an opportunity to expose and train grad students, post-docs, and scientists in providing E/PO. The exploration of this option and the changes that would need to be made for this audience is taking place in parallel to the investigation of the other groups as options, as the needs of this audience are likely quite divergent from the needs of afterschool providers and community organizations.

Lead Institution:
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Girl Scouts of Central Maryland (GSCM) and the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Physics and Astronomy Department were both involved as partners in the development of this program. JHU and NASA Goddard Astrophysics Science Division scientists and education professionals created the activities, wrote up instructions, and led the activities, while GSCM organized the Girl Scout events and provided the participants. Both JHU and GSCM hosted the activity at different times. Magnolia Consulting served as an external evaluation partner during the program development and expansion to other Girl Scout councils around the country. During this phase, a number of partner organizations attended either an in-person or remote training on the program and/or served as pilot locations. These included Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles, Spitzer, Sahuaro Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona, Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois, Girl Scouts of Eastern South Carolina, Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore, Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas, Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, Girl Scouts of North East Ohio, Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington, Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay, Girl Scouts of Northern California, Girl Scouts of Alaska, Girl Scouts of Colorado, Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York, Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest, Girl Scouts - North Carolina Coastal Pines, Girl Scouts of Maine, Girl Scouts of Western New York, Girl Scouts Carolinas Peaks to Piedmont, and Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri. As we expand the program to other informal education audiences, future partners will likely include 4-H groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scout groups, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, and university physics and astronomy departments.

Effectiveness and Impact:
Evaluation findings
Magnolia’s evaluation plan was designed to examine specific questions regarding the Big Explosions and Strong Gravity (BESG) program and its impact on the students who attend. The following findings address those questions:

  • BESG is very successful in raising awareness of the work of NASA scientists and current topics in space science. Girls came away from the day’s event with a greater understanding of how scientists study the universe and of what scientists do in their work. Interactions with scientists allowed them to not only understand their work better, but also to understand that scientists are ordinary people like them.

  • BESG provides a good exposure to role models through interactions with scientists. The event provides participants with sustained opportunities to interact with scientists who are positive role models.

  • BESG provides highly engaging activities for participants. Girls enjoy the activities and enjoy learning the concepts the scientists present.
  • Adults perceive the event as a high quality opportunity to expose the girls to scientists and engaging science concepts.

  • The nature and presentation of the activities allow girls to enhance their awareness and making sense of potentially difficult concepts.

  • Participants enjoy learning the science concepts presented in the activities and have fun solving science problems while working through the activities.

  • Event activities are particularly successful at engaging student interest when they are interactive and provide opportunities for hands‐on, minds‐on learning (creating spectroscopes, watching the soda can‐implosion demonstration). Activities are less successful at engaging students when they are presented through more lecture‐based approaches.

  • Mixing girls across ages and troop locations works well. However, there is some indication that older girls with more science experience may benefit from opportunities to explore concepts in greater depth.

  • The activities make learning about space science interesting. The event is moderately successful in promoting further interest in learning about space science.


Regarding the effectiveness of the training sessions and the BESG resources, the evaluation report says the following:

  • Planning the event and training facilitators was successful using the online manual and resources. Having an event coordinator who could train others ahead of time by providing opportunities to practice prior to the event was essential to successful implementation. Facilitators found the resources to be user‐friendly and noted a few areas where supplemental resources would be helpful.

  • Findings from distance and face‐to‐face training for future BESG events indicate that participants felt prepared to lead the sessions and plan the event after training. More of the participants in face‐to‐face training indicated a high degree of preparedness compared to those trained through distance means, although it is difficult to draw any conclusions based on the small number of individuals responding to the surveys. The majority of participants rated the training format, materials, pace, and delivery highly.

The interim and final evaluation reports prepared by Magnolia have been uploaded along with these metrics and impacts (BESG_Evaluation_Phase1.pdf and BESG_Evaluation_Phase2.pdf).


Impact statements:
Assessment of impacts was done with self-reported changes in interest and knowledge from the students, as well as surveys regarding adult perceptions of student impact. Based on this, changes in both student understanding and interest were observed.

During the first phase of evaluation, 100% of students believe they gained a better understanding of what NASA scientists do in their work, more than 90% believe they understood the science concepts being presented and how science is used in real life. The responses to the open-ended questions about what they had learned included specific examples of increased knowledge such as “supernovas first compress then explode” and “the iron in our blood comes from stars that have exploded,” and that “all things are made from stars.” Of the adults, 94% felt that the activities helped students to understand the science concepts central to each activity, and 75% felt that the activities helped students understand the applications for science to real life. One adult commented that, “for those who are interested in science it added to their depth of understanding.” Some specifically commented on the increased understanding related to astronomy, black holes, and stars. Additionally, all of the adults agreed that they had also learned new things because of participating with their students.

Of participating girls, 93% stated that they enjoyed learning about the science presented in the activities. The majority (82%) also indicated that they had fun solving science problems while doing the activities. These findings indicate a high level of engagement in the Big Explosions and Strong Gravity (BESG) activities, which in turn is intended to foster greater understanding of the topics presented in the activities. Of the girls, 87% felt that the activities made learning the content interesting, while more than 75% indicated that the activities increased their interest in learning about space science. Students commented, “I thought it was very interesting, and I learned a lot” and “it was interesting and fun!” Of the adults, 87.5% felt the activities were effective in generating student interest in space science.

During the second phase, 100% of students believed that they had understood the science concepts being presented, and 90% felt that they had learned something new. In addition, 96% said that the event had increased their understanding of the work of scientists, while 90% said that the activities helped them understand how scientist study the universe. Of the adults, 100% felt that the activities helped students to understand how scientists study the universe, and 92% felt that they helped students to understand the science concepts central to each activity.

Of participating girls, 96% stated that they enjoyed learning about the science presented in the activities. The majority (96%) also indicated that they had fun solving science problems while doing the activities. These findings indicate a high level of engagement in the BESG activities, which in turn is intended to foster greater understanding of the topics and interest in the content presented. Of the girls, 94% felt that the activities made learning the content interesting. Girls commented, “I loved it; I’ll come back!” and others commented that it was “lots of fun.” Of the adults, 92% felt the activities were effective in generating student interest in space science.