As part of our efforts to work with the formal education community (that is, generally K-12 schools), the Chandra EPO team works with the National Science Olympiad. The Olympiad is an excellent science competition that involves middle and high school teams from all 50 states, often getting kids involved at an even earlier age.
Jeffrey Silverman was part of the very successful Science Olympiad team from Troy High School (Fullerton, CA) team in 2001. He is now finishing his Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of California at Berkeley, where he works mainly on exploding stars known as supernovas including 2006gy and this recent news-grabbing event. We asked Jeffrey to share with us some of his experiences during the Science Olympiad and how they helped shape his choices once he got to college and now into graduate school and beyond.
I first learned about Science Olympiad during my freshman year at Troy High School in Fullerton, CA. The Science Olympiad team was one of the best in the nation and has won first place at Nationals numerous times. In fact, the team members were as revered on campus as any of the football or baseball players (something that still surprises me to this day!) I always liked physics and math and astronomy so I thought Science Olympiad sounded like a fun opportunity. Thus, during my junior year at Troy I tried out for the team in the physics event, but didn't make the cut. In my senior year, however, the astronomy event (Reach for the Stars) began and I made the team by winning that event in a school-wide competition.
I have loved astronomy and astrophysics since I was young (as young as 6 years old according to my mom). I had taken a physics class in high school and had a decent math background, but never had any formal training in astronomy. I loved looking through telescopes and going to planetariums, and thought that it might be a career I was interested in, but until Science Olympiad I didn't actually know all that much astronomy.
To prepare for the school-wide competition, I taught myself much of basic, modern astrophysics from a handful of popular-science reference books on the subject during the summer of 2000. This was when I truly fell in love with the field and when I realized that I understood the subject quite well, even without any formal training. Winning the school-wide competition in the astronomy event to make it onto the team was a very special experience. However, the most meaningful experience was placing first in the astronomy event at the national competition in 2001 at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.
Throughout high school I was excited about astronomy and physics, but during my senior year, while teaching myself astronomy in preparation for Science Olympiad, I realized I wanted to pursue the subject in college. While an undergrad at Rice University in Houston, TX, I studied physics, astronomy, and math, earning degrees in math and astrophysics. During my second year at Rice I began taking actual astronomy and astrophysics classes (the first formal astronomy education I'd ever had) and I loved it and did quite well in those classes. From then on I knew I wanted to continue my astronomy education beyond college.
I definitely feel that my early involvement in the Science Olympiad had an impact on my career choices. I doubt I would have ever taught myself so much astronomy if I weren't preparing for the Science Olympiad. That preparation helped me immensely throughout my college (and post college) career. I had seen much of the basic material before any of my peers in college (and even a few in grad school) and something that I've learned throughout my education is that the more times you are exposed to a concept, the better you understand it.
What's great is that in the modern age many, many people have access to a great wealth of (usually quite accurate) information. I bought and borrowed books about astronomy to teach myself the subject back in 2000, but now over a decade later practically all of that material can be found for free on multiple websites. I will fully admit that even as a working astronomy researcher with a M.A. Astrophysics from UC Berkeley and currently working on his PhD, I occasionally consult Wikipedia! In addition there are many open source texts and publicly available series of lectures and websites that are amazing resources for people interested in learning astronomy (as well as other sciences). In addition to utilizing these online resources, local museums and planetariums and colleges are great places to talk with and learn from professional scientists.
If you are interested in a career in astronomy, there are tons of local amateur astronomy clubs around the nation (and the world!) who often know nearly as much astrophysics as people with PhDs (and often know more about telescopes and constellations) who love to discuss astronomy with people eager to learn and often hold star viewing parties open to the public. This is a great way to get your "foot in the door" of the field, before making any large time or financial commitment.