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Hands-on STEM Learning: Northern Skies Observatory

A seventh grader sitting at the computer control desk at an observatory in a small Vermont town comments to her fellow student: “I can’t believe I am in charge of this telescope!” The 17-inch PlaneWave reflecting telescope, complete with its supporting state-of-the-art equipment and robotic software, was displaying images of a galaxy 2.3 million light-years away—and the amazed student was doing all the commanding as she went down the protocol of how to make this sophisticated telescope look at something so distant.

Students operate the main telescope in the Northern Skies Observatory dome Photo courtesy of NKAF
Students operate the main telescope in the Northern Skies Observatory dome.
(Photograph courtesy NKAF)

This was the result the founders hoped for seven years ago when starting the Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation (NKAF) in Peacham, VT. Using astronomy to grab the interest of young students around STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) can lead to college majors in STEM and future careers that pay well. Astronomy typically appeals to students at all levels, capturing their imaginations and leading to teachable moments in disciplines from literature to science and math.

It’s not hard to envision lesson plans incorporating Greek mythology, photographic views of outer space, geometry, geography, and higher math. NKAF levels the playing field for students in economically challenged rural Vermont where scientific instruments and access to field trips are virtually non-existent. This type of learning can change lives. It also provides the type of change the U.S. needs to stay competitive as we strive to regain our lost world leadership in science, technology, engineering, and math.

David Magnus, a retired science teacher, and Sidney Wanzer, a retired physician, spent the better part of seven years pursuing the dream of building the Northern Skies Observatory (NSO). The goal was engaging students through the use of hands-on sophisticated scientific equipment and empowering them with inquiry-based learning. “We wanted students to feel what it’s like to learn by making your own observations, and we wanted to ‘hook’ their interest in science. They will be our future astronomers, scientists, computer experts and technology advisers.”

At participating schools a science teacher was recruited and trained as a docent, interfacing between the technology of the observatory and the individual student users at their home bases. Magnus explains: “These teachers constitute an important platform upon which the project operates, and they have had extensive training over the past several years. Training of docents was organized in conjunction with the Vermont Agency of Education, so that time spent training at the observatory could count toward necessary teacher recertification credits.” Teachers will always be involved, but another new level of docent, without extensive training, is being created to broaden the Observatory’s programs.

Teenage astronomy student at the solar scope
Teenage astronomy student observes the Sun at Northern Skies
Observatory. (Photograph courtesy NKAF)

Docents and students typically make initial and repeat visits to the observatory site, so they will have a visual understanding of what they will be controlling in later sessions initiated from their schools’ computer. Eyes are wide when students first see the 14-½-foot diameter silo, which is totally automated with regard to dome rotation, opening and closing silo apertures, and guiding of the telescope. These students feel like scientists since they are using topnotch equipment and doing their own research. A few feet away from the observatory dome, connected by a covered walkway, is a heated, handicapped accessible, 20 x 20′ control building for computers, monitors and other supporting equipment for on-site telescope users. Other portable instruments are available:  two Celestron 8″ telescopes, a Dobsonian 12″ reflector, APO Stellarvue 110ED refractor, and a Lunt solar telescope.

In summer 2011 eight students, aged 11-15, came to the observatory for four days and three nights of hands-on use of the equipment, and the result was a resounding “yes”—this is “cool stuff.” The following two summers NKAF offered longer space camp sessions, a mix of daytime discussion and study with nighttime use of the scopes. There were field trips to the nearby Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, to Dartmouth College’s observatory, and to telescope makers at the annual Stellafane convention in southern Vermont. Ten students attended each of these summer space camps, and NKAF is broadening program offerings by encouraging multi-generational learning at schools and public libraries to whet people’s appetites for STEM learning and using the observatory.

Members of the community gather for the Venus transit
Members of the community gather at Northern Skies Observatory for the Venus transit.
(Photograph courtesy NKAF)

New happenings for 2014 include increasing the capability for spectroscopy and photometry by the main 17-inch scope. This will expand the observatory’s range of operations, as everyone—students, teachers, and observatory staff—continue to learn and impact STEM education in the region.  Another new group includes local adults who have formed an astronomy club that promises to be very active. NKAF is also focusing on women’s programs, since women are under-represented in STEM fields. It all starts by introducing girls to the excitement of science. At the original open house a young girl exclaimed to her mother: “Mom, I could be an astronomer!” That simple phrase made everyone’s hard work worth the effort. As NKAF’s impact expands, the original premise remains the same—all users of NSO are made to feel that “this is my telescope.” NKAF believes the sky is the limit and is determined to help the next generation reach their potential!

As with most non-profit groups, NKAF depends on contributions from individuals, businesses, and foundations. For more information, to donate, or to get involved go to: www.nkaf.org or contact NSO Director Damon Cawley – (802) 592-3057, damon@nkaf.org.