Project Gives N.C. Students Chance at Out-of-this-world Research

This fall, students and teachers in 26 N.C. high schools will explore faraway galaxies via high-powered telescopes that top the tallest mountains in the Andes.

Their new experience in college-level astronomy research will be made possible by Project OBSERVE – Observation-Based Student Experience in Research Via Exploration – led by UNC’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

The project will allow science classes to use the Internet to direct the telescopes remotely from towns across North Carolina. The students will share their observations with classmates, peers in other participating schools and the public through Web-based presentations.

It’s rare for high school students to have such an experience, teachers say. “The great thing about this is that it is not a simulation,” said Larry Cole of Alleghany High in Sparta. “This is the real deal. This is what astronomers really do.”

This summer, Morehead Center staff members are showing teachers in how to direct these new learning experiences. One group has completed training at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman; another group will train July 24-28. The teachers learn to use telescopes to capture images from space and to analyze them using special software.

They also learn to access Skynet, a Web-based program that controls six robotic telescopes at Cerro Tololo, Chile. This array of telescopes, called PROMPT – for Panchromatic Robotic Optical Monitoring and Polarimetry Telescopes – is administered by UNC.

The teachers and their students will use Skynet to submit celestial coordinates for the astronomical objects they want to observe. PROMPT will follow those coordinates and provide observational data that the class can download.

“Hands-on astronomy is difficult to do in a high school classroom,” said Jesse Richuso, who coordinates the project for the Morehead Center. “OBSERVE provides teachers with an exciting tool to teach observational, hands-on astronomy in the classroom or computer lab.”

The project is funded by $50,000 from the Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy and Space Science (IDEAS), a grant program for outreach projects that team educators with scientists. It is administered by the Space Telescope Science Institute on behalf of NASA.

UNC’s physics and astronomy department, the Pisgah Institute and former UNC faculty member Jonathan Keohane are partners with the Morehead Center in Project OBSERVE. It is one of several center outreach programs that link communities with UNC research activities. It will continue throughout the 2006-07 academic year with regional meetings for the teachers.

“The kids are going to love this,” said teacher Rachel Owens of Nash Central High in Rocky Mount.

Each year, more than 130,000 visitors participate in educational programming at the center, regarded as a leader in astronomy education since 1949.

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