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OBSERVE to give students chance for out-of-this-world research

posted Friday June 30, 2006

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

Participating Teachers
Albemarle
Ben Davis, Albemarle High School

Asheboro

Marie Millner, Randolph Early College High School

Canton

Penny Squires, Pisgah High School

Cary

Carl Rush, Green Hope High School
Don Thomas, Cary High School

Chapel Hill

Kevin Carter, Chapel Hill High School
Rob Greenberg, Chapel Hill High School

Charlotte

James Elliott, Myers Park High School
Lynn McCarthy, South Mecklenburg High School

Eden

James Ivie, Morehead High School

Hendersonville

Larry Ashcroft, West Henderson High School

Hickory

Carol Foote, Fred T. Foard High School

Huntersville

Chris Detweiler, Hopewell High School

Laurinburg

Kathy Williams, Scotland High School

Marion

Luanne O'Neill, McDowell High School

New Bern

Sandra Parker, New Bern High School

Pittsboro

Leslie Jones, Northwood High School

Raleigh

James Cole, Middle Creek High School
Barbara Gatewood, Wakefield High School
Todd Gushner, Leesville Road High School
Vonnie Hicks, Enloe High School

Rocky Mount

Rachel Owens, Nash Central High School

Sparta

Larry Cole, Alleghany High School

Swansboro

Albert Zima, Swansboro High School

Williamston

Cliff Hudson, Williamston High School

Wilmington

Aaron Soodek, Lakeside High School

Wilson

Edwin Davis, Daniels Learning Center

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 Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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 (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 IDEAS (Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy and Space Science), a grant program for outreach projects that team educators with scientists. IDEAS 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 2006-2007 school 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, a leader in astronomy education since 1949.