Dr. Kim Coble and high school sophomore K’Maja epitomize the kind of multi-faceted, long-term relationship that Project Exploration seeks to foster. United by their love of astronomy, their partnership has grown into a genuine friendship that continues to enrich both of their lives. Senior Manager of Curriculum and Professional Learning Communities Jameela Jafri (who introduced them) and I sat down with the two of them at a local café to find out more about them.
Josh Fox: How did the two of you meet and start working together?
K’Maja: It started with Sisters4Science. One day I was watching TV with my dad, a show called “The Universe.” I said to my dad, “Ok, one day I want to be one of those.” I think it was the episode when they were talking about different kinds of planets. I was like, “Ok, I really like that kind of stuff.” I told Miss Jameela in September of 2009, and in December Dr. Coble came in [to Sisters4Science]. I was so excited. I didn’t think I was ever going to see her again. Then, right before I graduated, Miss Jameela said, “Dr. Coble has an opening and you could do an internship.” “Oh my God, yeah!” That was in 2010. We’ve been working together since then.
JF: How old were you when you saw that TV show?
JF: Would you say that you were into science before that?
K’Maja: I first started liking science when I heard about Pangaea. That was in sixth grade, and was the first time I was really interested in it. I’ve always been a writer, but I never really looked at science deeply until learning about Pangaea. I realized there’s more to science than just “ecosystem.” There is always biology, but astronomy is something different, because you never really hear people having a conversation about it.
That’s what I like. I like to actually read the history of it. I was really into mythology. That’s why my first big project [working with Dr. Coble] was the Medusa Nebula, because I had just read about it. I was so in love with the Percy Jackson series, the mythology. I wanted to do something pertaining to that.
JF: How would you describe the difference between what you learn in school, what that experience is like, and your experience working with Dr. Coble?
K’Maja: For school, I look at it like “I’m learning this because I have to, to get the credit in this class.” With her, I’m learning this because I want to know more about it, not because someone’s telling me “you have to do this.” Out of my heart I am seeking to know more about this.
JF: Now, I would describe you as a person who at a very young age was very actively interested in learning specific things. You were taking some control of your education.
K’Maja: Always. Even now, I’m thinking about what I want to do, and when I go to college I really want to study international cultures and religions. I just enjoy learning stuff and talking to people about whatever. I notice every little thing.
JF: Do you think that you are different from your classmates? Your peers?
K’Maja: I know that I am different from them. Because they don’t understand why I have to talk to whoever walks by, or ask the teacher a question. They don’t understand why teachers come to me to ask me to do certain things, or how much I care about a lot of things. I’m always focused on college and my future. “How am I going to do this? How am I going to do that?” Because I know that my dreams are out here, but I’m only right here. So I have to keep it together. Whereas my friends only care about what they’re going to do tomorrow, I care about what I’m going to do two years from now. Then after that. Then after that. I’m very proactive, and friends really aren’t. That’s the biggest difference. I think about “How will this decision affect me ten years from now?” They’re thinking about what song is on the radio.
JF: Why is that?
K’Maja: I think it has a lot to do with your upbringing. In my house, my dad always told us, because he didn’t have a lot growing up, “Just the fact that you have a house with a bathroom makes you already better [off] than me. I want you to remember that. Never to be ungrateful, and to take every decision.” I never wanted to disappoint my parents. They’re so smart. I just wanted to be as smart as them. My dad was salutatorian. I have to live up to expectations. And I enjoy doing it. I want to do something different.
You know, people ask, “What are you interested in?” And I say, “Well, I love learning and I love astronomy.” And it’s a shocker to hear that – when people hear that I actually want to do something that’s science. Going to school and being able to tell my English teacher, “Oh yeah, you know how when we were reading about the myths and the gods, and how Poseidon is the god of the sea and that kind of stuff? You know, in actuality there are different stars that are formed together to make the actual print of Poseidon, the print of Perseus. And nebulas, and here’s the picture of it. This derived during this time, and at one time the Aztecs worshipped this, and…”
Just being able to educate other people of different races, and different ages on something, only being sixteen, and an average teenager… I think that’s my biggest thing. Telling other people. Because it’s not really cool to like science. No one thinks, “Oh yeah, I want to do some science stuff!” No one thinks that. For a long time I didn’t say, “I’m going to go work with my astronomy professor.” I said, “I’m going to hang at the café with my colleagues.” In actuality I was going to go study. [all laugh]
JF: Kim, can you compare your experience, your journey to being a scientist to K’Maja’s? When you were in sixth grade, was science something that was on your radar? When did that come into your world?
Kim Coble: I always kind of loved science and math. My first-grade math teacher, I loved her. Mrs. Jones. She was awesome. I had really good math teachers and science teachers growing up. A lot of them were women. In general I had great teachers. The schools I went to were public schools, but they were experimental and really spectacular. We did a lot of creative and critical thinking, and there were lots of enrichment programs.
I too, always like writing. And in science, being able to communicate is a really, really valuable skill. I did a bunch of camps when I was in middle school and early high school. When I was sixteen, the craziest thing happened when I got an internship in astronomy. I had to go to the doctor to get a physical. We were talking and he’s like, “So, you’re sixteen, what are you doing for the summer?” And I said, “I’m looking for a job.” He said, “Let me give my friend Ralph a call at the Space Telescope Institute.” And Ralph took me on as a student for six summers.
Jameela Jafri: Wow.
KC: He just kind of plucked me out. He made it a point of taking on students. He just saw that as his job, even though it totally wasn’t. Other people there didn’t take on students. There weren’t any formal programs, or anything like that. It was just the craziest thing. So, I’ve always had an eye towards, “Someday I’ll have my special intern to work with.” Like I got, you know. When I met K’Maja in the Sisters4Science session, I just knew she was the one. [laughs] We just hit it off! And I knew how excited she was about astrophysics, and what a go-getter she was. She really sought me out. And I was like, “You want to be an astrophysicist? I’ll make you an astrophysicist.” [laughs]
JF: What have you learned from K’Maja?
KC: She has brought back a lot of the excitement into this for me. You know, as you go up the food chain in science, I think the culture of it gets less and less exciting. The science of it doesn’t, but you get mired in paperwork, and you get… just a little dragged down, day to day. And working with her, it’s just so much fun. It gives me the big picture, and brings me back into why I got into it. Also, she’s really helpful. She gives me the perspective I need to be able to do the work.
JF: I’m getting the sense that the nature of how you guys work together has changed over the last couple of years. Can you talk about how it was in the beginning and how it’s evolved? Both in your relationship, and in the actual work that you are doing?
K’Maja: Well, when we first started it was very simple. “I just want you to pay attention to this, and try to do this.” I would only work when I was with her. But over the years, she gives me the work and tells me, “Take it home. I want you to work on this by yourself and then tell me what you got.” Now that I’ve gotten more mature, she’s given me more responsibility.
There was a point where I was just kind of bored. And she was like, “Ok, how about you do this and this and this?” So, now I’m not bored anymore. [laughs] As we worked together more, we learned how we work. How she thinks and how I think.
JF: And the actual projects – in the beginning you were collecting data and observing things, but it sounds like now you’re actually working on curriculum. How did you transition to doing that?
K’Maja: It wasn’t until I told her how really passionate I am about writing. I let her read one of my papers that I had to do for school. She saw herself, “Oh, she could really be of use to me in the writing department.” I may not know the formulas and stuff, but I know how to get someone’s attention with my words, and keep them focused.
Lately, she’s been like, “Ok, I know you love writing. So, here’s some writing stuff.” She’s been having me read through her work, and I love to check it. So, I’m doing the two things I love – working with science, but still working with my writing.
JF: Tell me about the project you are working on right now.
KC: We’re developing college-level astronomy and cosmology curriculum for general education. Typically it’s for people who are not science majors, although sometimes there are science majors in these classes.
Based on the research we’ve done with students about what their ideas are before they take an astronomy or cosmology class – we interviewed some students at Chicago State, and we also did some surveys nation wide – we started designing activities to target them. It’s a full website. It’s really, really interactive. It’s much more immersive than just reading a book or looking at a movie, because students tell us that they need to have hands-on work with it, rather than just sit there.
A lot of students are telling us in interviews that they don’t believe stuff the scientists say unless they do it themselves. Like, with the age of the universe, they say, “At the beginning of your class, Dr. Coble, I thought that was a number that you just made up. But now that I did a lab, where we used real data to calculate the age of the universe, now I believe it.” So, we include stuff like that in the modules. And with the surveys too – and this is sort of scary for science – about a third of the students were saying either, “We can’t know stuff about the universe because it’s ‘out there’,” or “Scientists just make stuff up.” Stuff like that which shows that students basically don’t believe that science works. Or, if they don’t know how it works they don’t believe it. So, we really want things to be immersive and have real data, so students will get a sense of where scientific results come from.
JF: Has the work of designing education curriculum always been a part of what you’ve done as a scientist? Or is that something newer?
KC: That’s newer for me. I did cosmology science for a long time. The curriculum designing is very related to the science research that I did for a long time. I was always very interested in teaching, and always wanted to do a good job at it – both my parents are teachers. But this is the first time, other than designing stuff for the classes I teach, that I’ve designed a national curriculum that somebody’s going to buy.
Doing curriculum development is not something that scientists usually do. Doing science education research is something that scientists don’t usually do. That stuff became interesting to me because there are lots of scientists doing awesome cosmology work, but do we need one more person analyzing cosmic background data? Or do we need somebody writing about this? There’s only one other group besides our group who is doing a lot of cosmology education research and curriculum development. So, I just had it in my heart to do this.
JJ: What kinds of challenges or obstacles did the two of you have to deal with when you started working together?
K’Maja: I think our biggest problem was just our schedules. There were times when me and Dr. Coble wouldn’t see each other for a couple of weeks, and I would be sad about doing the work because I didn’t have anyone to do it with me. You know, she might be out of town at a conference. I can’t call my friend up and be like, “Hey, let’s look at some galaxies!” No, they’re going to be like, “Oh, the new Jordan’s that just came out?,” or something like that.
We don’t come and just talk about science. We come and talk about “How was your day? How was your week?”
JJ: So it’s that relationship piece?
KC: That’s so important for me too. It makes me feel like a human being.
K’Maja: My biggest issue with my friends is, a lot of science contradicts religion. And the religious have a huge problem with that. Being from a church-oriented family, we go to church a lot, and I try to talk to my friends. Like, “I’m really enjoying this, studying the stars.” I tell them, “H2O is water. That’s science. There’s nothing in the Bible that says how water is put together.” My dad always tells me, “We never know what the Big Bang was. It could have been the hands of God clapping together. We never know.”
So, that’s my biggest thing with loving science so much, I can still love science and love to know things and not be going against the law that I have set forth in my life, which is my religion. It’s the biggest thing. That’s why I’m so interested in other cultures, and how at one point they had a god for everything. Because it was raining, [they believed] that meant the cloud god was crying. When in actuality the clouds just got too big because there was too much water, so they had to release the water.
Before, I think my biggest problem was having someone else in your corner, like your friend. When no one else is doing it, it’s easy to be kind of down about it, because you don’t have anyone who is doing it with you.
JJ: That’s huge, that community piece. Being in a community is important.
KC: And I would like to see a lot more astronomy going on. I can talk to my research students about astronomy. We can all have our own little conversation. But there is nobody else for miles who can talk astronomy. I would like to see a lot more people involved in astronomy in some way.
JF: Tell me a little bit about what’s going on in Alaska.
KC: Okay, so twice a year the American Astronomical Society has its meetings. The summer meeting this year is June 10-13 in Anchorage, Alaska, and we are going to present a poster there.
It will have a little bit about how Project Exploration works, because I think that’s a really awesome model for how outreach should work. You know, in astronomy people really like to do outreach a lot, but a lot of the programs are kind of disjoint. Maybe people go into a school here or there, but Project Exploration is unique in that it has this underlying structure that really supports the students like a family. And also the scientists. You know, as a scientist, having the infrastructure in place is tremendously important. And having the wheels run smoothly. So, I want the Project Exploration model to be part of it.
Then I want to talk about K’Maja’s two projects, the work that she did with the Global Telescope Network, taking the images. I want to show the images that she took of the Medusa Nebula, because they are really beautiful. Then also describe what we are doing with the curriculum project. Mark Hammergren at the Adler Planetarium has also done some work with outreach, so I thought we’d give him a corner of the poster to talk about his work, too.
K’Maja: Tell them the most important part about going to Alaska.
KC: What’s the most important part?
K’Maja: I was born in Anchorage, Alaska!
JJ: You were?!
K’Maja: Yeah! And I haven’t been back since I was, like, two. So that was the most important thing. I was like, “Oh, my home!”
JF: Okay, one last question. K’Maja, I’ll ask you first – What do you want to be when you grow up?
K’Maja: I want to be a good person, number one. Also, I want to be a world-renowned astronomical scientist/journalist. I want to be running something where everything I’ve learned traveling to different places and studying different cultures and religions – I want to be able to tie it right back into something I’ve learned in astronomy, and give it to people and have them read it and learn from my perspective. I just want to be able to show people what type of stuff I do. I don’t know what kind of degree that is. [laughs] I don’t know what I’m going to major in…
KC: One great thing about astronomy is that it’s really international. You get to travel around the world, and many, many collaborations are international and you meet all kinds of people. That’s one of the coolest things about it.
K’Maja: So, an international astronomical journalist. That’s what I want to be when I grow up.
JF: That sounds fun.
JJ: I think what’s really interesting is that sometimes a lot of people will say, in work with role models and young people, that young people need someone that looks exactly like them, or has the same background as them. What you just said about having someone in your corner, and having someone believe in you and see you for who you are, your interests for what they are… It’s not so much what Kim looks like, or what her background is, or what color her skin is – it’s really about the relationship. It’s not really that the person looks like them, it’s that they have their back. It’s what you just talked about, trust and listening. That’s huge. And it’s much harder, it’s more than skin deep.
K’Maja: I don’t even look at her as my white professor. It never would matter. The only time we talked about race was when there was something that happened at school, and I was like, “You know, I was really upset by what just happened.” And she was like, “You know, when I was growing up the whites and the blacks this and that…” But, we never really think about it. She’s a woman, I’m a woman. She likes science, I like science. That’s it.
KC: She is this awesome, amazing person. We connect on a personal level. I love her. When I grow up I want to be known as the first person who got to work with her.
JF: That leads to my next question for you. What do you want to be when you grow up? What’s next for you?
KC: That is a good question. I mean, I guess I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve spent a lot of years building a certain path, and I kind of feel like I’m on the right one. I really love working with students. That personal interaction really drives something in me. I really like doing it through my science, and through the education stuff. I guess the big challenge for me is to do it while having a well-balanced personal life. K’Maja’s got a plan for me. She’s got it all figured out for me.