Astronomy – the most fascinating part of Earth Science class. Unfortunately, it has to be taught in the day time! Even those of us lucky enough to have decent telescopes or nearby planetariums have trouble engaging our students. Drag the scopes out at night and you are lucky to get 10 kids to come observe. A field trip to the local planetarium yields a 1 hour presentation. But, in our experience, the “Oooh’s” and, “Aaahs” last only until we get back on the bus. The rest of the time in class consists of paper, Herzprung-Russell labs, videos, and pretty slideshows.
Thanks to the Virginia Department of Education and their partners, we have the ability to now have our kids act as astronomers and astrophotographers! They can study celestial objects online and then capture real-time images of what ever captures their imaginations! On the morning of April 11, 2008, the skies virtually opened up for our students and they did so during school hours. Fantastic!
This innovative project dubbed, Share the Skies (STS), was created through a partnership of the Virginia Department of Education, New Mexico Skies, Software Bisque, and Virginia Tech’s Institute for Connecting Science Research to the Classroom. It enables Virginia students to access and control research-grade telescopes to explore Australia’s night skies via the Internet. Students use CCD (charge-coupled device) imaging techniques to capture digital images of deep space for further study. The telescope we use is a Celestron 14" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope located in Pingelly, Western Australia. All you need is a username and password, a little creativity, and an internet connection and the sky becomes your students to behold.
Deborah, our region’s STS designee and Granby’s ITRT, attended training sessions in New Mexico at New Mexico Skies and West Virginia at the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory). Michele had previously worked with the astronomers at NRAO on a similar project called Quiet Skies. Deborah returned to Norfolk and trained Michele on the telescope. Together, they planned an entire series of hands on lessons that were completed entirely online.
We determined that not only were Earth Science SOLs going to be covered, but also English, World Geography and Computer/Technology. Together, we developed graphic organizers and data tables that were sent to students via their school e-mail and stored on their access drives. This allowed us to save on paper AND allowed students to work at home as well! Students had no excuses for not completing the assigned task.
Originally, we had planned to incorporate Google: Sky as our field guide to the universe. But, we quickly discovered that some of our computer equipment had hardware conflicted with this program. We had to find alternative sites and chose Sky Eye. The Share the Skies website offered a good number of resource sites that enhanced the lessons. We used the moon phase gadget and the ‘Your sky Tonight’ tool to help the kids plan. Students spent 3 days studying star development, nebulae, and galaxies at their own pace. When they found an object that interested them, they marked it for potential viewing. At last, April 11th arrived.
We brought our excited kids into our media center’s research and training computer lab and introduced them to the telescope. Deborah conducted the introductory tutorial. Pingelly is +12 our local time. Talk about understanding time zones and International Date Line! Our afternoon sessions would be using the scope in the wee hours of the next day! We incorporated weather into our lessons using the Fair Dinkum weather reports so that we could be sure of clear skies. We reminded them of the rules (No back button clicks!) and stressed patience (good images take time – the stars a millions of miles away!) and let the first group find Betelgeuse!
The scope took about a minute to slew and settle and another 3 – 5 minutes to capture the image. A collective “Whoa!” went out when the bright image flashed on our smart board! The other groups then clamored for their turns. Up came the Southern Nebula, the Jewel Box cluster, the Sombrero nebula, Gemini, the southern Pleiades, and the Swan. Each new image was greeted with awe and wonder. In the words of Caleb, “I never saw the stars that close before. If I saw stars it was on a piece of paper!”
This project has sparked interest as few things I have done before. Captured images were saved in student drives and emailed to friends and family. Students begged me to reserve time again soon. They want to see Saturn which reigns this month! As their Earth Science teacher, I have also given them Starry Night Software to further their personal interests in specific objects. I have not had a solitary lunch since that day! (I am the one with the password!).
Copyright 2008 Norfolk Public Schools