Student astronomers discover the universe at LBL

March 19, 1993

By Peter Weiss

Just like modern astronomers, students in a new, nationwide program called Hands-On Universe are retrieving colorful astronomical images from distant telescopes using nothing more than their classroom computers. With special software, they can zoom in on the blazing halo of the eclipsed sun, sketch the outlines of galaxies, and rotate or repaint rich-hued portraits of planets.

But these images are more than just pretty pictures. Each is a dense mosaic of tiny dots, or "pixels," which represent measurements of light intensity and wavelength by the telescope's electronic sensor. With them, students can do real, scientific problem-solving while learning astronomy, physics, and mathematics. At the same time, they can discover the greater world of their fellow students and professional astronomers by collaborating and communicating with both on the network.

"A lot of high-school kids will be doing something very close to professional grade astronomy for the first time in history," says LBL astrophysicist Carl Pennypacker, who is lead scientist for the program. The first of 35 high schools in 20 states began going on-line on Jan. 15. Students in the program will not only learn science, Pennypacker says, but will discover "the wonder and delight that makes us (astronomers) do what we do."

That delight infects even students "turned off" to science, say teachers who have used prototype versions of Hands-On Universe in their classrooms. "We're trying to reach people who, without our intervention, wouldn't be going into science, or pursuing higher education," says program coordinator Elizabeth Arsem, who also works for UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory. She has made a special effort to recruit teachers from school districts in minority and low-income communities.

For the first year, Hands-On Universe classes will work mainly with images stored in a database, plus a few images per week that they request directly from the telescopes. With those freshly taken images, they will participate in real astronomy research: for instance, by searching for exploding stars, or supernovas. Within a few years, it is expected that the program will offer a constant stream of images from its telescopes. There are also plans to open a national observatory with an automated telescope dedicated solely to high-school observers.

At the inner-city Maynard Evans High School in Maitland, Fla., physics teacher Joan Schwebel says her students are insatiable when it comes to Hands-On Universe. "I had to put a password on my computer, because when I came back after going to lunch, I found four kids working with the images."

Schwebel is one of 35 teachers in the program so far. A core of a dozen teachers--and numerous students--helped develop the program during the past two years. The group included three National Science Foundation (NSF) Presidential Teachers of Excellence and five teachers from the Department of Energy's Teacher Research Associate Program (TRAC).

Hooked on astronomy What hooks the students is "really doing astronomy, not just reading or being told about it," says head curriculum developer Tim Barclay of the nonprofit Technical Education Research Centers (TERC) in Cambridge, Mass. The former high-school prinicipal and math and science teacher writes the guides used by teachers and students taking part in the program.

Hands-On Universe teaches students trigonometry and the law of gravitation, for instance, by asking them to calculate the speed of light and the weight of the planet Jupiter. They take measurements on images of both the giant planet and its moons to use in the calculations. In other computer sessions, students learn calculus while figuring out the heights of mountains in lunar craters.

The program also challenges students to make their own contributions to science. Classes joining in the supernova hunt, for instance, will be assigned a number of galaxies to monitor. From time to time, each class will receive an updated image of its patch of sky to scan electronically for a new dot of light indicating that a supernova may have occurred. Pennypacker and other scientists believe that supernova measurements may ultimately reveal the answer to one of the outstanding puzzles of modern astronomy--whether or not the universe will expand forever.

"They'll have some of the same tools that we (astronomers) have," says Pennypacker. "With them, they'll also be searching for storms on Mars and Jupiter, monitoring active galactic nuclei, and measuring variable stars. All that data will be new."

In order to reach students in less affluent schools, the cost of those tools has to be kept small. The most expensive items needed are an IBM- compatible personal computer with Windows(R) software and a modem. Arsem has written generic grant proposals for financially strapped schools to use in applying to foundations and local businesses for funds or computer donations.

Expansion plans The program also plans to reach outside the schools. It will be collaborating with museums and with new, drop-in, educational sites known as "urban technology centers." These computer-equipped storefronts in inner-city neighborhoods give residents a chance to use state-of-the-art computer technology.

NSF has given the program $1.2 million dollars to get up and running. Other funds have come from DOE's Office of University and Science Education Programs, LBL's Center for Science and Engineering Education, and the LBL Physics Division.

For now, the program is linked to two telescopes at UC Berkeley's Leuschner Observatory in Lafayette. By late 1994, Hands-On Universe will also begin using a new automated telescope that is now under construction at LBL. By the time the three-year NSF grant comes up for renewal in 1995, the program's National Student Observatory at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City should be in operation, Pennypacker says. The observatory will house a professional-quality, computer- controlled telescope devoted entirely to Hands-On Universe's web of high-school astronomers.

Pennypacker says he hopes to eventually connect the network to dozens more professional telescopes worldwide, and to hundreds more schools. Professional astronomers are being asked to act as mentors to young observers with whom they will communicate by electronic mail. "We've had fair success getting astronomers into that mode," Pennypacker says. "A lot of them like it because their work is fun, and fun to share."

Besides creating a link between scientists and students, the network also establishes an unusual connection between young people both physically and culturally distant. Learning science is only part of the network's benefit, says Craig. "What's also exciting is that we'll be communicating with schools in Harlem, in Macon, Ga., and on a Navajo reservation. Hands- On Universe goes much further than just science--it's a link to the world."