Peacham Observatory Gives Students Hands-On Astronomy Lessons

May 24, 2013

Last year, nearly a quarter of Vermont’s middle school students, and a higher percentage of secondary school students, were labeled “substantially below proficient” in a standardized science test given throughout the United States. 

School districts are adjusting lesson plans to bring up those scores. And in the Northeast Kingdom, there’s an unusual hands-on approach to learning about astronomy.

A setting sun cast a warm glow through scattered clouds on Northern Skies Observatory recently, as a couple of young astronomers walked through the door of the silo-like building next to Peacham Elementary School.  Barnet science teacher Cindy Mosedale was giving an astronomy lesson to two middle schoolers. They sat in front of laptops at a long table. Only steps away, a $300,000 telescope awaited their instructions.

The night was too cloudy, so the kids weren’t able to look through the lens. Instead, they searched a poster on the wall for heavenly bodies that they wanted the robotic telescope to find and photograph for them, when the skies cleared up.

Mosedale showed them a photo gallery of pictures already taken from this building.

“When we take the images and when we get them – and I will show you with some we already have – they come out as little objects in the center,” she explained.

The students were learning to use software that writes code for the telescope to follow, hours after they’d gone home.

For Sydney Wanzer, one of the co-founders of the Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation, which raised the money for this telescope, this is what science education should be all about – putting students’ hands on technology that spurs them to ask questions.

“They use our equipment, they image various objects in the sky, they study them, they make measurements of one sort or another, and thereby learn,” Wanzer said.

Wanzer is an amateur astronomer. A doctor by training, he teamed up with his neighbor, David Magnus, to start the Foundation, which now works with about a dozen schools, mostly in the Northeast Kingdom, to bring astronomy into lesson plans. On this drizzly night, the students got to see the telescope, but not in action. Magnus lead them up a few stairs.

“We have to make sure the last person closes the door, because this is ice cold and that’s warm and we don’t want warm air to come in here – why?” he asked the students.

“Because warm air would steam up the glass and mirrors in the telescope,” one replied.

On clearer nights a panel opens wide for the lens to survey the skies. That’s a “wow moment,” teachers say. The Northeast Kingdom is especially ideal for the project, because there is almost no light pollution from cities and because this is a cash-strapped part of Vermont where schools often have to make do with less. Brad Vietje is a volunteer consultant for the observatory.

“The original goal was to provide a facility that would give students in rural areas that don’t have access to the kind of things they might have in Philadelphia or New York or Chicago, access to equipment and a research facility that would give them a leg up when they go to apply to college and interact with the wider world,” Vietje said.

And the world can’t get much wider than this galaxy on display here in the middle of a pasture. The observatory has been open for only two years, so it’s too soon to see if science scores improve.  But stargazing will not take a vacation. This summer the Foundation will partner with the Fairbanks Museum and Dartmouth College to offer a space camp for teenagers interested in astronomy.

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