Space has proven to be the final frontier for Madisonville High, the official name given earlier this month to a Main Belt asteroid discovered by Madisonville High School science teacher Denise Rothrock and two of her students.

The celestial body formerly known as Asteroid 2008 SE209 is located 2.9 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun with an orbital period of 4.9 years. It is one of two discovered by Rothrock, a 1982 Texas A&M University biomedical science graduate, and her students in 2008 as part of the International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC) Asteroid Search Campaign.

The November 2 naming announcement by Harvard University's Minor Planet Center capped an adventure that began four years ago with a summer professional development opportunity, courtesy of the Texas Regional Collaboratives (TRC) for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching.

Rothrock, who lives in Bryan and teaches physics and astronomy at Madisonville, had attended the 2008 Summer Astronomy Institute at the University of California-Berkeley with the help of funding provided by the Texas A&M-College Station Regional Collaborative, directed by Carolyn Schroeder through the Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE). As one of 18 teachers participating in the three-week course, Rothrock learned about the IASC Asteroid Search Campaign, a free educational outreach program for high schools and colleges that gives students a unique look at astronomy and teaches them how to make original discoveries of Main Belt asteroids.

As part of the summer course, Rothrock not only received training in how to use the IASC but also instruction in the Internet-based software Hands-On Universe, an astronomy curriculum for middle schools and high schools. Using downloadable images taken from the 24-inch and 32-inch telescopes at the Astronomical Research Institute Observatory and the software program Astrometrica, she and her then-middle school students set to work in fall 2008 analyzing the images obtained from the IASC website. They labeled known asteroids for identification and use in measurement while also recording any unrecognizable object as a possible new discovery.

To their shock and amazement, they learned in early 2009 that they had discovered two previously undocumented asteroids -- two of the four identified during the IASC's 2008 campaign run, which lasted from October 1 to December 5 and, in Texas alone, included 16 different schools representing six regions.

"We were all excited when we found out that not only had we discovered an asteroid, but to have discovered two from Madisonville Junior High School was very exciting," Rothrock said. "I was especially excited for my students to have discovered an asteroid."

In addition to Rothrock's find, her students Lauren Theiler and Kaitlynn Ogg discovered Asteroid 2008 SG209, which is located 2.2 AU from the Sun with an orbital period of 3.2 years. Although still in the process of being verified, this Main-Belt asteroid that comes within 0.06 AU of Mars also is being continuously tracked by the Minor Planet Center along with Madisonville High.

Rothrock recalled having no trouble finding students to participate in the search, noting that the chance to lay claim even to a small piece of astronomical history was appealing to most students.

"The students that participated were very enthusiastic and eager to be involved," she said. "We added more students for the second campaign -- an international event consisting of 15 schools from places as far away as Poland, Morocco, Japan and Portugal -- and hope to expand for future events. How many teachers can say that their students are waiting to get into school?"

As for Rothrock, the project motivated her to make a move to Madisonville High School, where she started an astronomy program. In the years since, she has been an active IASC volunteer and master-teacher trainer, conducting a number of workshops, including the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching (CAST), Texas Academy of Science, and the 2011 TRC Astronomy Professional Development Academy as well as Hands-On Astronomy for Teachers and Students at Brookhaven College.

Since 2005 the Texas A&M Regional Collaborative has offered teachers across Brazos Valley a variety of free professional development and networking resources intended to hone their skill sets and also create "teacher leaders" like Rothrock whose classroom practices will impact not only students but also their colleagues.

To learn more about the IASC Asteroid Search Campaign, visit http://iasc.hsutx.edu/.

For more information on the Texas Regional Collaboratives, go to http://thetrc.org.


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Carolyn Schroeder, (979) 458-8001 or cschroeder@science.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Denise Rothrock

    (Photo courtesy of Madisonville High School.)

  • Madisonville High

    Madisonville High, formerly known as Asteroid 2008 SE209, identified in fall 2008 by Rothrock. (Photos courtesy of Denise Rothrock.)

  • Madisonville High Too?

    Asteroid 2008 SG209, discovered by then-Madisonville Junior High students Lauren Theiler and Kaitlynn Ogg in fall 2008.

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