Friday, August 3, 2012

Learning Astronomy in West Texas - A CANDELS Teacher Workshop

Frank N. Bash Visitors Center, just a few minutes drive from the
observatory. The observatory is about a 7 hour drive from Austin,
 and only a couple hours from the Big Bend National Park.
For today's CANDELS blog post, I'm reporting from the McDonald Observatory in West Texas, which is operated by the University of Texas (my home institution). I am here as part of a workshop for middle and high school teachers. We hold a number of these every summer, and I'm particularly excited for this one, as we're basing it on CANDELS science!

Before we talk about the workshop, I wanted to give you a brief overview of the observatory. This setting is very unique; compared to a lot of other telescopes, which are on jagged mountain peaks, the McDonald Observatory lies in the Davis mountains, which among other things, are more hilly, and green (at least this year)! The first telescope built here was the 82 inch Otto Struve telescope, finished in 1939, after the university received an $800,000 endowment from Texas banker William J. McDonald. Since then, we have added the 107 inch Harlan J. Smith telescope, and 9.2 meter Hobby Eberly Telescope (along with a number of ~1 meter telescopes).

Dr. Roderik Overzier, a Prize Fellow
postdoctoral researcher, explains his
107" observing program to the teachers.
They took a tour of the building,
and were even allowed to "drive" the
telescope, changing where it was pointing.

The teachers got to experience a test drive of the "Hubble Universe" iPad app, which is being co-written by two CANDELS members, Dale Kocevski and Elizabeth McGrath. The app, which will be released next year, will take you on a tour of the universe, stopping off in the key CANDELS science areas.

Keely talking with a couple of the teachers,
who were working on an interactive activity
to study galaxy sizes and lookback time.
A unique aspect of this observatory is that although it is quite distant from any city (it took us seven hours to drive here from Austin), it has a state-of-the-art visitors center. The drive is not a deterrent, as while I sat in the StarDate cafe in the visitors center this afternoon, I saw 20-30 people pass through in just an hour. They do frequent star parties here which typically attract hundreds, and for good reason, as the observatory is basked in the darkest skies in the continental US.

Another great thing they do out here is to hold workshops for middle and high school teachers to come learn some astronomy, and participate in activities which they can bring back to their classrooms. A few months ago, we obtained funding through the Space Telescope Science Institute's Education and Public Outreach initiative to run one of these workshops based on the science goals behind our CANDELS project. Along with my research interest, I have a personal interest as well, as this workshop was run by my wife Keely, who is a Research Associate at UT Austin, and works with the McDonald Observatory education and public outreach team.

For an observer, I had a difficult time
assembling my Galileoscope!
A total of 15 teachers attended the workshop, from all over Texas and Oklahoma (although people have been known to come from as far away as California and New York to attend these workshops). We've done a number of activities related to CANDELS, including studying the expansion of the universe, learning about spectrographs and different wavelength regimes in astronomy, and talking about the Hubble Space Telescope. You can see some of the activities here. They also let me give a talk about my research, where I explained how we go about finding distant galaxies. The teachers also were able to tour the HET and the 107 inch telescopes, and both nights they have been observing through the eyepiece of a 36 inch telescope, looking at objects such as M51 (the Whirlpool galaxy) and M87 (which I described as "honking big!").

These teachers are very dedicated, spending their time out here learning how to better teach astronomy to the next generation. While we don't need to make everyone into a scientist, today's young people will be tomorrow's voters, and a public well-educated in astronomy can only lead to good things for our understanding of the universe.

Keely with the teachers gathered in front of the Hobby Eberly Telescope.

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