Rep. Grijalva visit to school highlights success of ASU Teachers College grant

August 29, 2013

While trying to figure out the best strategy for teaching “inferencing” to the students at Ed Pastor Elementary School in San Luis, Ariz., the school’s leadership team looked around the table of educators and realized a bigger, internal problem: there were at least five different interpretations of inferencing amongst its own teachers. 

“We would always find out what the kids need and present to the teachers, but we never took the time to check out what the teachers need,” said Cindy Sanchez, a former principal at Ed Pastor, who is now principal at Arizona Desert in Gadsden. Rep. Grijalva, ASU and Gadsden Download Full Image

Through the Arizona Ready-for-Rigor Program, a $43.8 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant awarded to Arizona State University, the school’s leadership team worked with the district to identify what the teachers need by utilizing the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement.

“That (realization) was huge for us. It was a total change of the paradigm for all of us,” Sanchez shared with U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva during a visit earlier this month to Desert View Elementary to highlight the Gadsden Elementary School District’s successful partnership with ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, which administers the grant.

For the 2012-2013 academic year, Ed Pastor Elementary was one of three schools out of the eight in the Gadsden Elementary School District to receive an A rating through the A-F letter grades distributed through the Arizona Department of Education. The other five Gadsden schools received B grades.

“That’s why the Teacher Incentive Fund [grant] and what TAP System is doing, what the school district was willing to be open to do in terms of ASU, and what they brought into here, is the future,” said the Arizona congressman.

Developed by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the TAP system is a data-driven program that focuses on increasing teacher and administrative effectiveness by providing all educators mentor and peer support groups, opportunities to advance in the profession without leaving their classrooms, continuous professional development based on their individual needs and a performance-based compensation system.

“The TAP system that the TIF funding has allowed the district to put into place has really formed the components that put together a structure that is a different way of looking at how to run schools,” said Ann Nielsen, Arizona TAP director. “A key component is weekly professional development with their peers based on the needs of their students.”

Each classroom teacher is paired with a mentor teacher who is available for guidance and support. A leadership team – comprised of the school principal, master and mentor teachers, and all career teachers – meets regularly to ensure the group is meeting its school-wide goals and to adjust any individual plans.

“When we have confident teachers, we have confident students who are able to excel,” said Linda Coronado, master teacher at Southwest Junior High, another Gadsden school participating in the grant.

The five-year AZRfR Project, which began during the 2010-2011 school year and is currently in 60 schools within 11 Arizona districts, is making an impact in the educational systems by developing and rewarding teachers and administrators. Throughout the state, along with school rankings improving through better student achievement results, the participating schools are increasing their teacher evaluation and observation scores and retaining more effective educators. Additionally, more than $5 million has been awarded to 2,250 Arizona educators during the past two years in performance-based incentives.

“We recognize the single most important characteristic in schools that affects student achievement and schools is the quality of the teacher,” said Virginia McElyea, AZRfR executive director. “So if we’re going to be successful in school reform, if we’re going to give kids access to the American dream, we have to have a quality teaching force. That’s what this grant is all about.”

Within the project, the TAP System has realigned the roles of educators to provide opportunities for them to differentiate levels of support for teachers. Within TAP schools, leadership teams follow research-based protocols to review data, provide professional development and support teachers.

“There is now a great system in place for getting the data. In the past we didn’t have a system where we would collaboratively look at a piece of data and make decisions that would impact our students,” said Coronado, the master teacher. “But with the TAP program and system it has allowed all of our teachers and administrators and master teachers to make the decisions to impact student achievement.”

The Gadsden district is seeing the results of their hard work and they’re committed to continue working just as hard.

“Our goal is to get all eight A’s, and we’re getting there,” said Ray Aguilera, Gadsden Elementary School District superintendent . “And it will be with the big help of a big team here.”

Writing the history of the 'Cosmic Dark Ages'

August 29, 2013

For millions of years after the Big Bang, there were no stars, or even galaxies to contain stars. During these “Cosmic Dark Ages,” neutral hydrogen gas dominated the universe. When clouds of primordial hydrogen gas started to collapse from gravity, they became stars. The infant stars’ nuclear reactions emitted ultraviolet radiation, stripping the surrounding hydrogen atoms of their lone electrons, making them ionized.

This launched the Epoch of Reionization, when young stars burned away the neutral hydrogen, creating pockets of ionized hydrogen around the first cosmic objects. However, this chapter of the universe’s life story is largely blank. We don’t know how long it took the first stars to form, or even when they began to do so. radio telescopes in outback Download Full Image

Using radio telescopes, scientists from ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration are working with a multinational team to probe deep into our universe’s mysterious formative eons, searching for answers to fundamental questions about this time period.

“We know a lot about the Big Bang, we know a lot about how the universe started and a lot about how the universe looks today, but for most of the first billion years we have almost no observations,” says Judd Bowman, an assistant professor in the school.

Bowman is the project scientist for the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), one of two low-frequency radio telescopes attuned to the unique redshift wavelength that neutral hydrogen emits. The other is the Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER), which SESE postdoctoral fellow Danny Jacobs works on, along with the MWA.

Unlike most radio telescopes, both PAPER and the MWA are not dishes, like the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (VLA).

“Normally, when you’re building a radio telescope, you’re building a dish,” says Jacobs. “Waves come in and bounce to a central point, which focuses your field of view very tightly on the sky.”

PAPER and the MWA are comprised of many separate, small antennae arranged in groups, providing a broad view of the sky. Jacobs compares the function of MWA and PAPER to wide-angle camera lenses. Dish telescopes like the VLA are more like standard or zoom lenses that can focus on one area very accurately.

Both arrays function similarly to cameras, as well. Just like light hits a digital camera’s sensor to create an image, radio waves hit the arrays in different places with different intensities, giving researchers a “picture” of where those signals come from and, consequently, an idea of how the first bubbles of ionized hydrogen formed.

To pick up the faint signals from the Epoch of Reionization, both arrays have been constructed in very remote locations. PAPER’s 128 antennas are spread across the Karoo desert in South Africa. The MWA consists of more than 2,000 elements located in Western Australia’s outback.

“The reason we go there is to minimize radio frequency interference. Anything from phones, computers and lights generate radio interference that swamps our signal,” says Jacobs. “It’s so bad we have to go to the most remote parts of the world and our telescopes still detect satellites and planes, and reflections from meteors.”

Hydrogen’s rest wavelength (the distance it takes for the wave’s shape to repeat itself) is 21 centimeters. However, both arrays are tuned to much longer wavelengths. Due to the expansion of the universe, radio waves from hydrogen during Cosmic Dawn are stretched out to multiple meters by the time they reach Earth.

Both MWA and PAPER are stepping-stones to a larger project called the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA), a massive radio telescope that will be capable of observing the cosmic processes that led to the universe as we see it today.

But even the basic components of those processes remain in question. Did stars form first, or galaxies, or black holes? HERA will help determine which was the inaugural celestial body.

“It’s a chicken or egg problem,” says Bowman. “All of those things today show up in the same place. Our Milky Way is one of billions of known galaxies and it contains billions of stars, and at its center is a supermassive black hole. So today, we see all of these objects interacting together. But which came first?“

Determining the incipient object will also shed light on everything that followed it. The first stars and galaxies would have had a tremendous influence on the neutral gas around them, altering the formation process of the next generation of objects. Understanding these effects is just as important as finding the objects themselves.

“Did the first objects make it easier or harder for more stars to form?” asks Bowman. “Did they make it so only big galaxies were able to survive through time, or did they allow little galaxies to thrive and grow?”

Such far-reaching, fundamental questions require a huge effort from people all over the world. ASU’s contribution alone comes from researchers and students of all levels from SESE, Physics and the joint Cosmology Initiative.

“When a project gets to the scale we’re talking about, with hundreds of antennas, the science is very hard, the analysis is very hard, you have to draw on the resources of the entire community to make it happen,” says Bowman.

Actually, MWA and PAPER are competing projects. The most effective methods and processes from each telescope will be carried over to HERA when construction begins next year.

“But we’re one team when it comes to the next generation,” says Bowman. “It’s an interesting form you see in science a lot, where competitors can be collaborators at the same time.”

The difficulty and complexity of this long-term project is actually what most interests Bowman, who began work on the MWA when he was a grad student at MIT in 2005.

“What’s exciting to me is working on a project that is hard, a project that takes time and real effort,” says Bowman. “I want to see something that’s never been seen before, I want to learn something that’s important to the history of our universe.”

Jacobs is also motivated by curiosity.

“I want to live in a world where we can, as a society, ask lots of questions about our world. Whether or not they’re useful shouldn’t matter because we are curious people ... and the more we know about the universe, the better off we are,” says Jacobs.

Both PAPER and MWA are supported by a number of organizations worldwide, including the National Science Foundation, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Arizona State University, Harvard University, MIT, University of California Berkeley, University of Virginia and University of Washington in the United States, the Raman Research Institute in India and a consortium of universities in Australia and New Zealand.

Written by Pete Zrioka, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development

Allie Nicodemo

Communications specialist, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development