The Search for Another Earth: Renowned Astrophysicist Dr. Sara Seager Meets Middle School Students in a Virtual World

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A peek into the Museum’s vMAX (Virtual Missions and Exoplanets) virtual world

In recent years, scientists have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. But are there any other Earth-like planets out there? Astrophysicist and planetary scientist Dr. Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the leaders in the field attempting to answer that question. Named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012, Dr. Seager recently became an avatar to inspire the next generation of scientists who may help her answer that big question.

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science currently has a multi-year million dollar grant from NASA to run the vMAX (Virtual Missions and Exoplanets) program, in which middle school students nationwide participate in weeklong camps to investigate exoplanets. vMAX offers a combination of hands-on activities and 3D virtual simulations, and gives students the chance to become avatars, navigate a virtual space environment, interact with students at other museums and science centers, and investigate real exoplanet data.

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vMAX students model the “transit method” by observing the shadow of the orange ball (the model exoplanet) as it “transits” the whiteboard

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Students investigate the spectra of gases like oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen – these special “diffraction glasses” split the light from the glowing gases into distinct patterns that allow scientists (and students) to identify the gases

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Students explore the virtual world of exoplanets, and interact with each other in Miami and Huntsville, via their avatars

Dr. Seager’s exciting work led to the first landmark detection of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. Many exoplanets are discovered via the “transit method,” which involves detecting a slight periodic dimming of a distant star due to an orbiting exoplanet passing between the star and Earth. To find out whether that exoplanet is like Earth, or if it has an atmosphere that could perhaps support life, Dr. Seager uses spectroscopy. This involves studying the light that reaches us from a star. By splitting starlight into its component rainbow of colors (or “spectrum”), she can observe distinct patterns in the colors. Scientists know that all elements, like oxygen or carbon gas, emit unique patterns in their spectra. By comparing those known patterns to the patterns observed in the starlight, it is possible to identify the chemical makeup of a star. And as the exoplanet orbits and interferes with the starlight, the change in the spectrum as we see it from Earth can even give us an idea of the makeup of the exoplanet itself!

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Dr. Seager and students gather in space to talk about exoplanets

Recently Dr. Seager conducted a different kind of mission, and met vMAX students via our virtual world. While her avatar and student avatars floated in space, she shared her inspirational work and career – including her role on TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), an upcoming NASA exoplanet mission expected to launch in 2017.

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Student avatars float in space and gather around to hear from Dr. Seager, who is floating in front of an image of the spectrum of the Sun

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Dr. Seager shares some data from the Hubble Space Telescope

Student avatars then took their turn to led the expert, giving Dr. Seager a tour of our virtual vMAX world, and the data on real exoplanetary systems that they have been investigating. Students then got to meet Dr. Seager face-to-face via Skype, and got a sneak peek into her very cool office, where she showed them several exciting models of spacecraft components.

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The students lead Dr. Seager through their virtual lab room, and show her the data they have been investigating of real explanatory systems

This group of middle school students – in Miami at the Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science, and another group of students in Huntsville, Alabama at the US Space & Rocket Center – had the unique opportunity to go into space and ask a renowned expert one of the biggest questions humankind has ever asked – is there another Earth out there?

What do you think?

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Saluting South Florida’s Science Student Standouts!

On Saturday, February 7, Frost Science joined Miami-Dade County Public Schools for its 2015 STEM Expo!  There, hundreds of students from South Florida presented their totally innovative and forward-thinking science experiments. A dynamic array of museum personnel were there to judge these projects, as well as present a STEM-themed activity from our Upward Bound volunteer group. After an in-depth afternoon of presentations and critiques, we presented select winners with awards from our museum.  The following students were special standouts:

  • Luis Coto – “Science Pioneer” – Dr. Edward Whigham Elementary School
  • Jack Penney – “Science Pioneer” – Howard Drive Elementary School
  • Travis Smith – “Astronomy All-Star” – Lake Stevens Elementary School
  • Dayna Veazy – “Environmental All-Star” – Vineland K-8 Center
  • Angelene Vargas – “Chemistry All-Star” – West Hialeah Gardens Elementary School
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Eldredge “Biff” Bermingham, Ph.D. (Chief Science Officer at Frost Science) and Millard Lightburn, Ph.D. (District Science Supervisor K – 5, Miami-Dade County Public Schools) present Angeline Vargas with her special “Environmental All-Star” award on Saturday, February 7 at the STEM Expo.

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Frost Science’s Daniel and Yvonne ventured to Jack Penney’s school to present him with a “Magic Science” program as well as his certificate for being a “Science Pioneer”. In addition to his parents and teacher being there to support him, over 200 students were invited to join the fun as well!

Special thanks to Dr. Ava Rosales and Miami-Dade County Public Schools for inviting us to participate in their 2015 STEM Expo. We look forward to next year’s event!

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Out & About with Frost Science: CBS4 Marlins Weather Day

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On Thursday, May 21, Frost Science joined CBS4 and the Miami Marlins as we turned their state-of-the-art baseball stadium into an interactive, science-themed classroom! Students from Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe counties attended Weather Day to learn about meteorology, forecasting, and even hurricane science and preparedness.

During our visit, Frost Science scored a home run with all guests as we had them “become the science,” simulating the life cycle of a thunderstorm.  Needless to say, it was a total blast (of lightning!).

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Museum personnel join the CBS4 Weather Team on the baseball diamond showcasing yet another dynamic community partnership that serves to make science-themed experiences accessible to all residents of South Florida and beyond.

Thank you CBS4 and the Miami Marlins for inviting us to partake in this all-star opportunity. Stay tuned for our next event in your community!

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Out & About with Frost Science: Big Night in Little Haiti

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On Friday, May 15, Frost Science joined the Little Haiti Cultural Center as they celebrated Haitian Cultural Month. At this “Big Night in Little Haiti” event, where arts, dance, music, and delicious foods are sampled for guests, our museum added interactive science programming to the festive mix of activities.

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Cultural artwork surrounds the museum and sets the tone for the evening’s colorful itinerary.

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Hundreds of community patrons gather to celebrate Haitian Cultural Month.

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James Herring, our exhibits manager, spins art with science during an interactive pottery display.

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Volunteers from the museum’s Upward Bound program help patrons “light up the night” with hands-on, STEM-based learning.

Thank you Little Haiti Cultural Center for inviting us to participate in such a lively, multi-cultural event. Be sure to check-out Frost Science the next time we are “out and about” in the South Florida community.

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Going Back in Time to Study Cuba’s Coral Reefs

As told by Fernando BretosCurator of Ecology and Field Conservation at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science:

3am… Rise and shine! Time for a quick shower then down to the hotel lobby for our six-hour bus trip to Júcaro. Located in Cuba’s Ciégo de Avila province, Júcaro is a small fishing town on Cuba’s remote southern coast. From Júcaro it’s another five hours by boat to my ultimate destination: Jardines de la Reina National Park. Known in English as Gardens of the Queen, it is the largest marine protected area in the Caribbean. Jardines and the Gulf of Ana María, the large body of water north of it is the focus of a research effort I am leading between the Center for Marine Research of the University of Havana, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and my own project called Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CMRC).

Since 1998 I have worked alongside Cuban marine scientists to study marine resources shared by our countries.  The project I am working on now is called Proyecto Tres Golfos (P3G). Through P3G we are trying to understand how marine organisms between Cuba’s three largest bodies of water, the gulfs of Batabanó, Ana María and Guanahacabibes, are connected. Data from our three research cruises is also helping us study the relationships between coral reefs in the US and Florida, which share many of the same species as a result of the Gulf Stream, a powerful oceanic current that transports organisms between our countries.

We finally arrive in Júcaro and meet our “research” vessel, a liveaboard dive boat called “La Reina”. Cuba’s southern coast has always been sparsely populated. Some say it’s because most hurricanes that strike Cuba tend to come from the south. Others claim the southern coast is too swampy for human habitation and a lack of deep harbors made it difficult for earlier settlements to take hold. Júcaro is all of the above. Covered in mangroves and low lying, it lives off fishing and the presence of Avalon Dive Center. Avalon has an agreement with the Cuban government that limits the number of divers and anglers who can use the park to ensure that the reef community remains healthy.

Aboard La Reina we steam toward the Gardens of the Queen. My colleague Dr. Daria Siciliano, a coral ecologist based at University of California-Santa Cruz, and I are interested in determining how the condition of reefs is changing due to human factors such as agricultural pollution and warmer, more acidic oceans. It is painstaking work. We move underwater along transects and measure reef cover along 10 meter transects. We look at how much of the coral is bleaching or diseased or how much is covered in algae, which can choke out corals. The more coral cover and the less disease we see, the healthier the ecosystem is. In places like the Florida Keys, algae have taken over due to excess nutrients coming from fertilizers used for agriculture and golf courses on mainland Florida. Corals thrive in nutrient low systems so when too much nitrogen or phosphorous flow from land, it allows algae to thrive at the expense of coral. Since coral provides the food and habitat needed for organisms to survive it is important to measure coral health and determine if management efforts are effective.

In the Gulf of Ana María, large corals abound, precisely because there is less storm energy and more nutrients due to proximity to land. In addition to our coral transects we will be carefully removing cores of corals to look for important historical clues as to what conditions were like in Jardines de la Reina before large-scale agriculture and tourism could impact the reef.

We make it to the Jardines key chains and enjoy some well-deserved sleep. Our first two days are comfortable and we complete many health surveys. Day three brings heavy northerly winds and surge. After completing one habitat survey we try for a second but working here feels like being in a washing machine. Up and down, left and right, we slam into fire coral or the sea floor. Just before we were about to give up Daria spots an enormous patch of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) just beyond the wave breaks. Elkhorn is type of coral that was once abundant in the Florida Keys but now increasingly rare. The coral is majestic with its bright orange branches reaching up toward the surface as if trying to tough the sunlight with extended fingers. These corals are considered reef-building corals because they have hard skeletons and live in some of the hardest conditions, providing a substrate for other corals and a shelter for reef organisms. In Florida, Elkhorn coral is affected by diseases such as white pox, which is spread through human effluent.  But in places like Jardines, Elkhorn abounds, most likely due to lack of exposure from human threats to water quality.

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Elkhorn coral in Gulf of Ana Maria

We swam around admiring their beauty. Sadly it was time to go back as the other teams had finished their work and were probably even more tired than we were after getting beat up by the surge.

We steam further into the Gulf of Ana Maria to Cayo Algodón Grande (Big Cotton Key). Here we find some huge coral heads, perfect for drilling cores.  Some coral heads are four or five feet tall and others reach within inches from the surface. Victor Ferrer, CIM’s young coral scientist, estimates the coral cover here at around 50%, which is quite high considering the average cover in the Caribbean is around 15%.

On the last day of our cruise at Algodón Grande we identify a Siderastrea sideraea coral that is perfect for coring. It is large, deep and spherical. My colleagues Konrad Hughen and Justin Ossolinski, both based at WHOI, are experts at removing coral cores. In fact, the longest coral Konrad ever took was four meters long from a reef in the Red Sea. We strap on our BCs and get into the water with all the heavy equipment required to take our core. My job is to ensure that the drill bit is straight and to pump water into the borehole so that grit is pushed out of the bottom and won’t clog the drill bit. It was like being part of a surgery. Konrad would make hand signals to Justin to add more bits to lengthen the drill or tell me to tell the boat captain to change the air tank once the drill was losing strength. We made great progress, removing a foot or two within ten minutes. This species of coral grows slower than others so a core a meter long can take us back in history at least one hundred years.

Drilling into a Siderastrea coral

Drilling into a Siderastrea coral

We continue to drill feverishly, stopping every few minutes to remove the drill bit or add another extension. We spend 20 minutes working the last section of core before we raise the drill bit one more time. Sitting inside the bit is one foot-long section of core followed by another. My first ever-underwater high five! We had the entire length of the coral and could now plug the hole and return to the surface. Konrad placed a concrete plug on the hole and hammered it gently. I asked him how these large corals cope when being drilled into. He assures me that after a year the coral grows back over the plug and continues growing leaving no evidence of a plug.

Once on board we put our core together end on end. It measured 1.3 meters (over four) and looking at the growth rings we estimated a growth rate of 0.7mm per year, meaning our coral is at least two centuries old.

This core’s chemical signature will be measured and we can determine that factors influence its health. We can also study climate patterns over time which can help us determine how Cuba’s corals might cope with higher temperatures and acidity which is threatening reefs all over the world.

Our weeklong cruise to Jardines was a huge success, revealing insights into how healthy Cuban corals are. Ahead of us are months of analysis to continue to get an idea of why they are healthier than ours. Back at University of California-Santa Cruz, Daria drills the coral core in two in order to take an x-ray. Looking closely at the growth rings she determines that the growth rate of this coral is more like 0.4 cm per year, meaning this coral emerged as a young polyp on the sea floor almost 300 years ago, around the same time George Washington was born.

Jardines de la Reina’s coral and fish populations are very healthy

Jardines de la Reina’s coral and fish populations are very healthy

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Out & About with Frost Science: Keep Doral Beautiful Fair

Doral Photo 1What can you do to help keep our environment healthy and resilient throughout South Florida and beyond?  Visitors at the “Keep Doral Beautiful Fair” learned many different approaches to ecological conservation thanks to immersive activities presented by community partners throughout Miami-Dade County—Frost Science included!

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Patrons gathered in Downtown Doral Park to celebrate green spaces with a variety of area organizations that focus on positive, earth-conscious practices.

At the Frost Science  “Science Treehouse” pavilion, guests learned how to become better informed about our local environment. This included hurricane science and preparation.

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Face-painted guests discover the potential of renewable energy through interactive activities.

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Visiting Girl Scouts plant the seeds of tomorrow at our flower and vegetable station.

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Activity Spotlight – Daniella Orihuela, Frost Science Exhibit Developer

Using food playset pieces, guests were challenged to identify and place items in one of the following categories:  proteins, dairy, fruits, vegetables, grains, sweets, and  beverages. The goal was to provide an opportunity for children to become familiar with a variety of food items, which directly enhances their decision-making process.  These types of activities serve as prototyping for the new museum’s “Baptist Health People & Science Gallery”, an interactive area where visitors will have the chance to explore how personal health impacts our everyday choices and radiates outward to a greater global consciousness (a perfect theme to be featured at the “Keep Doral Beautiful Fair!”).

Thanks again to the City of Doral for inviting us to engage their local community.  We only look forward to the next time we are “out and about” in Miami-Dade County!

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Out & About with Frost Science: Metropolitan (MET) International School of Miami

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Cough. Sneeze. Gesundheit! Our bodies do some truly weird (and totally gross!) things. Students learn why they are all necessary for human survival in our “Gross Bodies” mobile outreach lab. On Monday, May 4, our Frost Science program facilitators visited the Metropolitan (MET) International School of Miami in Wynwood to educate Pre-K students about unique biological processes.

As a group, Daniel and Yvonne have students share what our vital organs are, where they are located, and what they do.

As a group, Daniel and Yvonne have students share what our vital organs are, where they are located, and what they do.

Then, using vaseline, red food coloring, and one-ply toilet paper, our 4 year olds discover how scabs form on the skin’s surface.

Then, using vaseline, red food coloring, and one-ply toilet paper, our 4 year olds discover how scabs form on the skin’s surface.

After it begins to set, cocoa powder is added to symbolize the dirt and germs that scabs trap to keep from entering the human body.

After it begins to set, cocoa powder is added to symbolize the dirt and germs that scabs trap to keep from entering the human body.

The finished product! Students showcase their “gross” scabs having discovered the wonders of biology.

The finished product! Students showcase their “gross” scabs having discovered the wonders of biology.

Thanks to the MET School faculty for hosting us at their arts-driven facility. If you would like to learn more about our mobile outreach program, please email us at outreach@frostscience.org.

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Out & About with Frost Science: Youth Tech Summit

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On Saturday, April 25,  Frost Science joined Miami Caribbean Code (MC2) in Little Haiti for its first annual “Youth Tech Summit.” With STEM-based disciplines and careers as the primary focus for this event, middle school students from the surrounding area participated in a variety of workshops that allowed them to explore scientific concepts with hands-on techniques.

Community partners from around South Florida come together to inspire students with immersive activities.

Community partners from around South Florida come together to inspire students with immersive activities.

Frost Science utilized block circuitry to introduce foundational principles in electrical engineering.

Frost Science utilized block circuitry to introduce foundational principles in electrical engineering.

What combination of tools will students use—buzzers, lights, or switches? They get to decide as different circuits are created and then tested!

Light bulbs go off on the table (and above students’ heads!) as projects are successfully facilitated.

Light bulbs go off on the table (and above students’ heads!) as projects are successfully facilitated.

She did it! Students take pride in their creations.

She did it! Students take pride in their creations.

Many thanks to Miami Caribbean Code and iTech at the Thomas A. Edison Educational Center for hosting us in Little Haiti.  We look forward to our next collaboration!

 

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Seven South Florida Attractions, One Low Price

2015adventure-passSeven local attractions recently joined hands to offer the first-ever ‘South Florida Adventure Pass.’ For one unbeatably low price, locals and tourists will enjoy unlimited admission this summer to Everglades Alligator Farm, Flamingo Gardens, Jungle Island, Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, Pérez Art Museum Miami, Sawgrass Recreation Park and Young at Art Museum. From animal interactions, lush botanical gardens to art expression, science and technology, the South Florida Adventure Pass will boast adventures of all kinds.

The South Florida Adventure Pass is now available at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, granting unlimited admission to each attraction until September 30, 2015.  Admission to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science will be valid through August 31, 2015 .

The cost is $50 plus tax, per adult and $40 plus tax, per child. Existing members* of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science can upgrade to the South Florida Adventure Pass for $30 plus tax, per adult and $20 plus tax, per child.

With the purchase of the South Florida Adventure Pass, you will receive the following member benefits at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science through August 31, 2015:

  • Unlimited FREE admission to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, including the Planetarium, SeaLab and Batchelor Wildlife Center
  • 25% off on up to 4 guest admissions on every visit
  • Discounted rate on the 50th Annual Summer Camp (registration now open)
  • Priority booking on Museum birthday parties
  • Invitations to Museum signature events
  • 10% off purchases at the Museum retail store

Do not miss out on this great opportunity to revisit past memories of the Museum and to create new memories with your family and friends!

The South Florida Adventure Pass must be purchased in person and is not available online. To receive the special member offer on the South Florida Adventure Pass, please visit the Museum Box Office, open daily from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM.

*The member rate is available for current members and those whose memberships expired from 10/1/14 – 5/31/15.

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Gillian Thomas Awarded ‘Top Women-Led Not-for-Profits in Florida 2015’ by The CommonWealth Institute of South Florida

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On April 2, 2015, The Commonwealth Institute of South Florida (TCI) hosted its 10th annual luncheon event at the Hilton Miami Downtown, honoring women-led businesses and celebrating the achievements of the women who hold leadership positions. TCI sent their annual survey to over 4,000 women business leaders in Florida to better understand their unique characteristics and how they leverage that to advance professionally.

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science’s CEO and President Gillian Thomas was honored with the ‘Top Women-Led Not-for-Profits in Florida 2015’ award.

The event featured a panel of respected women who are leaders in the community, as well as their businesses, discussing the business climate for women in executive positions. The panel included Alexandra Villoch, president & publisher of the Miami Herald, Ginger Martin, president & CEO of the American National Bank, Kuky Salazar, Latin America, Europe, Middle East, and Asia president of Private Jet Services, and Gillian Thomas, president & CEO of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. Additionally, the discussion focused on challenges, accomplishments, industry trends, leadership, and how the women were able to achieve positive results in their roles.

Congratulations, Gillian Thomas!

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