• IPAC



Q: Can anyone teaching anywhere apply?

Any US-based educator can apply. (This is NOT just for Southern California teachers!) We cannot include non-US-based educators, primarily because we cannot pay for travel for non-US-based educators. If you are, say, teaching at a military base halfway around the world, unfortunately at this time, the NITARP model can't support that -- each team needs to have weekly telecons, which is hard enough over the US time zones from Eastern to Pacific, let alone Alaska and Hawaii.

Q: Do you have to teach high school to apply?

We have historically been targeted at classroom teachers for grades 9-­12, but we have also had 7th-8th grade and community college educators participate, as well as non-traditional educators such as those from museums. If you want to join us but you don’t fall in those categories, make your case in your application! Convince us that you will leverage your experience in an interesting and innovative way, and we’ll consider your application! 

Are you a teacher of K-6th grade students? We have not yet had teachers of very young children participate.  A "regular" participant would work with students at home, and from that group, pick up to two students to come with them to Caltech in the summer and the AAS in January to present their results. The parents of very young students are unlikely to allow them to travel with their teacher. Moreover, very young students might not have all the neurons necessary for some of the concepts discussed; even the 7th and 8th grade students we have seen, while brilliant, struggled a bit more than the high school students (who typically struggle themselves!).  Having said that, though, even for 'regular' participants, a decent fraction of them historically have not brought students on the trips, but just work with students back at their home institution.  So you may have to spend some time in your application explaining how you will make this work for you in your environment, or if you will focus instead on sharing what you can with your students, and educating your colleagues where you can.

Q: I have an idea for a project, can you just find me a mentor (and money)?

In general, no.

Every team is different, so no, we can’t tell you before you apply (or even often right after you are accepted into the program) who you might work with, what you might work on, or how much math or programming will be involved. You get selected first, then put on a team. Because each project is unique, original research, we can’t tell you what is going to happen… that’s research! If you have a strong preference for, e.g., extragalactic science, tell us about it in your application. If you have an idea for a project, tell us about it in your application. But, either way, while we will do our best to accomodate you, you may not end up doing that particular project or topic -- the highest priority in making teams is often geography, e.g., we can't have people from Maine and Hawaii on the same team, because they will never find a time for a weekly or bi-weekly telecon.

If you bring in a mentor AND money, we can help provide the experience and infrastructure to make your partnership work. Please contact us.

All the data we use, all the archives we use, are free to access. You don't need to be connected to any professional astronomy organization to access the data. You can play around with the archives at any time, for free.

Q: What are my chances of getting in? How can I improve those odds?

In terms of raw numbers (e.g., if we picked successful applicants randomly): In 2019, for the 2020 class, we had more than five times as many applicants as spots. In 2012, for the 2013 class, we had about five times as many applicants as spots.  In 2011, for the 2012 class, we had about four times as many applicants as spots. Years before that had a lower oversubscription ratio.

In terms of the content of your application (e.g., how you can increase your chances): Our ideal candidate is already using real astronomy data in the classroom (e.g., in inquiry-based labs) or in their teaching environment (for non-traditional educators), and has not yet conducted real astronomy research. He or she already has some experience with quantitative measurements of astronomical data, so they are ready to just jump in.

When we read your application, we are trying to assess the following criteria:

  • Are you reasonably up-to-speed on the astronomy, math, and computers you will need for this program? We only work with you intensively for a year, and we don’t always have time to “start at the beginning” on all of those three topics. You should be reasonably comfortable with the basics of all three of those topics, because it will feel like the deep end of the pool in any case.
  • Are you comfortable working in groups, remotely, even with people you have just met? Most of the work in this program is over email, wikis, and teleconferences. If you can’t work remotely with your team, this program will be very hard for you, and for the rest of your team who is depending on you to pull your weight. You need to be able to read and reply to email regularly.
  • Is our investment in you going to be well spent? We need you to get out there and share what you have learned with your environment, whether that be any combination of the following: your peer educators, amateur astronomers, your community, and/or more students; locally, regionally, and/or nationally; in print, online, and/or in person. (Especially if you are a non-classroom or non-traditional educator, this component is weighted more heavily.)
  • What skills are you already bringing to the table? Maybe you have experience with databases. Or you spent a lot of time looking at images, asteroid hunting. Or, you have experience with astronomy in a wavelength not explicitly included in IRSA databases (such as radio or gamma-ray astronomy). All of this is important to get into your short-form answers. If you don’t have an advanced degree in science, you’re actually our primary audience. If you already have a lot of experience with astronomy research (e.g., you already have a MS or PhD in it), this is a strong disadvantage because we are trying to expose more people to the process, and you’ve already done it. If you have a PhD or MS in a different field, you are not at as much of a disadvantage. In any case, please make all of this clear in your application.

Every year of NITARP so far, we have had to turn away people who are overqualified -- e.g., they are already doing fabulous things without us, and/or they already understand how real research is done, and the fractional benefit that they may gain from a year with us is relatively low.   It is painful; we often wish we could work with a much larger number of educators each year.

Q: How much astronomy do I need to know, going in?

We do require some baseline astronomy knowledge because we have a lot to accomplish in just a calendar year. Our ideal candidate, in addition to being a fabulous educator, has some astronomy knowledge from at least college-level Astro 101, and some experience making quantitative measurements with astronomical data (e.g., FITS files). There are several programs out there designed to get teachers in touch with real data that can give you some of these baseline skills, if you don't already have them.

One of our main goals is to share how research works. So, if you already have a PhD, then you already know very well how research works, and you very well may "place out" of NITARP. If your PhD is not in astronomy, or from some time ago in astronomy, rather than being on a NITARP team, you may be able to more effectively learn, and learn faster, by checking out resources developed for participants, such as our wiki or the NITARP tutorials.

Every year, we have to turn away people who are overqualified for this program, either because they have a PhD or have already been involved in intensive astronomy research before.  It is gut-wrenching every time, but we have such a small footprint that we try to select people for whom the fractional benefit that would come from a year with us is substantial. There are many educators out there who are already doing fabulous things without us!

If you have questions about your qualifications, please ask.

Q: If I am a NITARP participant, will you use my name?

Yes, we will use your name in conjunction with media events (such as press releases) associated with the entire program, and on this very website. If you have concerns regarding the use of your name as associated with this program (e.g., your institution would not approve, or you wish not to be seen as affiliated with NITARP), this may not be the program for you. Please contact us if you have specific questions.

Q: When is the application deadline?

Typically late September. We know September is crazy for teachers, but the timeline set by the AAS registration deadlines don't allow it to be much later. You can submit your application earlier; we typically open the site for application submission in August, and we make the application available in May so you can start drafting your responses early.

Q: I have a brilliant kid who needs a mentor. Can you help?

Sorry, no - we work primarily with teachers (and through them their students), not students directly. There are lots of programs that do work with kids, but most of them work in summers. What we know about is here.  Most of the programs near the top of the list are for teachers and students together. The programs in which I imagine you (or more specifically your brilliant kid) would be most interested are the ones all the way at the bottom ("research opportunities for high school students"). You may, however, find something useful earlier in the page as well, since the programs at the bottom of the page are for the most part just summers, and many of the programs on the rest of the page are year-round, or just school year. Some of the programs listed earlier on the page will likely be too simplistic, but others may provide inspiration for a motivated student. For example, the SDSS Sky Server projects may initially seem more like canned labs, but the skills learned there can be extended into a wide variety of independent research projects.

Q: Will I come out of this with ready-to-use curriculum?

No, you won't come out of NITARP with ready-to-implement curriculum. You will be working side by side with scientists and students, and since we depend on you to help your students understand, there will be some "real time" curriculum development. You will be exposed to many resources and opportunities. But you will not have a solid, debugged, ready-to-use lesson plan(s) at the end.

Big Picture

Q: How does NITARP work?

We partner small groups of educators with a research astronomer for a year-long authentic research project. Please see this page for a longer answer.

Q: What are the various roles people play in NITARP?

Please see this page for a more complete answer.

Q: NITARP sounds like a lot of work. Will it be fun?

Yes, we think so!  For educators, you can look through some quotes from past and current NITARP participants by browsing individual participant pages or by perusing pages summarizing recent events.  It is a lot of fun for astronomers too -- these educators are some of the most enthusiastic learners you will ever meet.

Q: How do you determine the research topic for each team?

We rely heavily on volunteer time from professional astronomers. While it is true that professional astronomers, in general, know more about all facets of astronomy than the average person-on-the-street, professional astronomers tend to focus very narrowly on a particular subfield of astronomy. With few exceptions, astronomers tend to stay in their own little parcel of the field. For  example, astronomers who know an awful lot about star formation in our Galaxy are unlikely to feel particularly comfortable studying galaxies at the edge of the Universe or asteroids in our Solar System. Having said that, though, there are certainly unifying themes - star formation happens in other galaxies, so some galactic star formation experts might venture into star formation in other galaxies in order to better understand it in our own Galaxy; asteroids and other bodies in our Solar System are remnants of our own star's formation, and so some galactic star formation experts might venture into study of bodies in our own planetary system in order to better understand star and planet formation elsewhere in our Galaxy. (And there are also, to be sure, brilliant people who move fluidly between sub-fields, but they are the exception rather than the rule.) What all of this means, though, is that we can't ask a galactic star formation person to lead a NITARP team on galaxies at the edge of the Universe, because it is outside of their comfort zone. If you are placed on a team with a mentor astronomer who studies stars in our Galaxy, chances are excellent that you too will be studying stars in our Galaxy. If you are placed on a team with a mentor astronomer who is currently working a lot with data from a particular mission, chances are excellent that you too will be using data from that mission, just because that's what they're doing lately.

How scientists think of research problems in general is a different, broader question, and it's often different for each person. Largely, it involves thinking carefully about the problems you are most familiar with, thinking about the tools that are available, and following up on threads or questions or "hey that's odd" things that you find doing research in the first place.

Q: Are students involved?

This program’s goal is first to give you the experience, and secondly (really, through you) your students.  However, we know that you are dedicated educators, and thus you are encouraged to involve students pretty much the whole time you're in the program (as well as afterwards). Financing permitting, we will pay for up to two students per teacher for your second and third (of three) trips. However, any students you bring along on these trips need to be heavily involved in the program.  You are not obligated to bring two students on the two trips with student participation; many participants have not, in fact, brought students. It is just fine to bring just one, or none, if you believe that your participation is best served by such a decision. On the other extreme, if you raise your own money, depending on your team, you may be able to bring more than 2 students on the trips, but more than 4 is strongly discouraged, just because we have noticed that if you are in charge of more than four kids who are not related to you, then most of your time is spent 'herding' and not learning. You may involve as many students as you want at your home institution.

Q: Do I have to be part of NITARP to use the data you use?

All the data we use, all the archives we use, are free to access. You don't need to be connected to any professional astronomy organization to access the data. You can play around with the archives at any time, for free.

Having said that, though, the archives are primarily aimed at professional astronomers and they do not generally have resources to help explain how to obtain or use the data; you need to do the legwork to learn the basics. There are WISE tutorials on accessing the archive and making 3-color images. For the most part, astronomers access each archive separately. However, there is  Skyview, which provides access to images from many different wavelengths and surveys all at once. The Virtual Observatory is working towards seamless access to all sorts of archives at once.

Q: What data do you use in NITARP?

NASA has a lot of data from observing Earth itself, from observing and visiting other planets and other bodies in our Solar System, and from astronomy... but we at NITARP are focused on the astronomy data, meaning other stars and other galaxies, as in things from a few light years to the edge of the Universe. We don't currently have any scientist mentors who study things in our Solar System (from the Sun to the Oort Cloud).

The NITARP teams use archival data from:

Q: How can I get access to an IR camera?

The IR cameras you see in museums or with other large-scale demonstrations are probably cameras like the FLIR camera (or actually from their line); in general, these are not too cheap but they are sensitive to the mid-IR.

Your local law enforcement and/or fire department may have at least one IR camera. They are all over the hill communities in SoCal because this is one way to look for hot spots in wildfires in the hills; they also make finding people who are running away from you in the dark very easy. Pasadena has more than one mounted on helicopters. You can sometimes work with your local PD or FD to borrow a camera for a demonstration or science festival.

Several commercially available digital cameras (including some cell phone cameras) are sensitive to the NIR. You can test yours by aiming a TV remote at your camera and seeing if you can see the blinking of the remote. If you can see this, your camera is sensitive to the NIR, and you can try various tricks to block out the visible light and thus just see the IR; there are several YouTube videos with various suggestions for this.

You can get an IR "gun-like" thermometer fairly cheaply; this is in essence a single pixel IR detector. You can do labs with this, measuring the temperature of various things.

You can use a regular thermometer to reproduce Herschel's original discovery of IR light.



Q: Do I get graduate credit for participating?

Sorry, no, and sadly you don't get miscellaneous promotion credit either. With a nation-wide base of participants, it's hard to support each district's requirements for teachers. And, with each team doing something totally different, each team can have a very different degree of math, programming, physics involved, so it is hard to structure things enough to merit graduate credit.

Q: When in the summer is the summer visit?

The summer visit happens whenever your team needs it to happen, based on your schedules. If it's actually in Spring or Fall instead, that's fine. It's happened before!

Q: How should I pick students?

In general, we leave it to you. Here is a page with some collected wisdom.

Q: How much money should I raise if I want to bring more than 2 students?

We at NITARP budget about $1500-$1800 per person, per trip, before administrative overheads. This is averaged over everyone -- students/teachers, driving/flying, cross-country/in-town. You may be able to save money by staying in a cheaper hotel, or carpooling. JPL auditors are strict, and as such, will catch things such as if you stuff three people in a room meant for two, and we are only paying for two of the three. Your mentor educator is likely to be able to help you with these kinds of questions. Please also consult the Big Travel Document distributed to you via email.

Q: How should I write the poster?

Obtain a power point template file from Luisa or your mentor educator. Parcel out the sections of the poster among your team. Good posters have few patches of solid text! The poster will fill up far faster than you realize. You should use as many pictures and graphs as it takes to tell your story; turn big chunks of text into bullets around the images and plots. Remember that people will be reading your poster while being under-caffeinated and over-stimulated, and they may be reading the poster over the heads of the people standing in front of the adjacent poster.

Big fonts. Few words. Get the main point across quickly. 

Please include a NITARP logo, and a funding acknowledgment. Please heed the authorship policy.

Q: How do you handle travel expenses?

Participants travelling in NITARP are travelling for the government as part of the program. As such, complex and potentially non-intuitive travel restrictions may apply. In some instances, participants will be asked to float a balance for your travel expenses (like their hotel bill) over a credit card billing cycle before their reimbursement can be processed. We do our best to reimburse participants as soon as humanly possible (and we are told we are FAST compared to some schools, and we do often get the reimbursement out to you before the next credit card billing cycle), but this depends on participants turning in receipts quickly to us.

Note that we cannot cover substitute charges, but the per diem rates are generous and are likely to cover most if not all of such fees.

Note also that we cannot pay salary or stipends.

Q: Is most of the work done on the trips?

While the trips are indeed very intensive learning experiences, they are short compared to the 13 months you are intensively involved in the program. Most of your interaction with your team will be over email and phone teleconferences, because you will not necessarily all be co-located in the same area or even the same time zone. If you are not a regular user of email for communication, it will be extremely difficult to accomplish the necessary tasks during your first year of intensive work.


Q: What are you looking for in a mentor astronomer?

Good mentor astronomers generally have the following characteristics. They see partnerships with educators as a partnership of equals, where they are likely to learn a lot just like the educators are learning a lot. They need to be very patient - these educators are VERY enthusiastic learners, but they are not undergrad students, and they have real lives (jobs, families) which they are juggling at the same time as the research project. Mentor astronomers need to be able to help their team come up with a project that MUST be done within a year, no deferrals. An undergrad summer project can extend into another semester or two if necessary; these teams must have something to present at their second AAS. Mentor astronomers need to let the educators try to do the necessary tasks, but be willing to step in and rescue the team (quickly finish reducing data, code something up, etc.), if the team becomes too frustrated. These teams, for the most part, do not have programming skills, so we often fall back on Excel to do calculations. Mentor astronomers should not generally assume that their team can code, in Python or IDL or indeed in any language. Mentor astronomers need to be willing to commit to a fluctuating time commitment over 13+ months, for free (though we are trying to work on fixing that). Note that each team also has a mentor teacher (who has been through program before) to act as deputy lead, translating for both camps, which in our experience helps everyone. Mentor astronomers, generally, should not be brand new postdocs or grad students, though new postdocs and grad students are welcome to help out on teams. All of our mentor astronomers to date have been essentially local, experienced scientists. We have let all the scientists work independently and manage their own teams, only with support if they want it.  If we are able to expand, we will be working on creating more infrastructure to support mentor astronomers in their role.

Q: I already have a PhD in astronomy. Can I participate as a regular NITARP participant, not a mentor?

One of our main goals is to share how research works. So, if you already have a PhD in astronomy, then you already know very well how research works, and you "place out" of NITARP. You are likely to be able to more effectively learn, and learn faster, by checking out resources developed for participants, such as our wiki or the NITARP tutorials.

If you want to participate in NITARP because you want to learn how to better take advantage of IPAC tools or learn how to process data from one of IPAC's missions (Spitzer, Herschel, etc.), there are many different materials developed at IPAC for professional astronomers, ranging from short screencapture tutorials to full-up day long webinars. Please consult the web page for the mission in which you are interested.

If you want to participate in NITARP because you want to learn how to better use data in your classroom, that is not one of the goals of NITARP. Indeed, we select participants who largely already know how to do that.  There are many other resources for that as well; you can start with some of the other programs getting real data into classrooms.  There are also seminars run by organizations such as AAPT and CAE to help with incorporating data and research into classrooms.

Q: How can I help fund NITARP?

Please contact us! Subsidizing a team (or a mini-team) can be as little as $50K. We have lots of ways of making this work.

After the first year

Q: What are you looking for in a mentor educator?

A mentor educator is someone who has been through the program before, and knows generally how the program is supposed to work. Because each team is dependent on the personalities involved and the way that the mentor astronomer works, each team, each year, can be a totally different experience. However, the mentor educator is someone on the team who knows generally what the typical timescales, goals, frustrations, etc., are.  They help the new educators with logistics and help the mentor astronomer with translating the jargon and tasks into terms that the team can more readily understand. (ex: "Wait, come back, you need to explain that better," or, "Here, let me try explaining that.") To first order, we look for people who are easy to work with and extremely responsive on email.

To apply to be a mentor teacher, look for the application sent via email, or contact us.

Q: You've finished your intensive NITARP year. Now what?

This has a longer answer -- see this resource page.