Emerald Coast Astronomy

with Bob Gaskin


For nearly all K-12 students in America, knowledge of astronomy is limited to what can be obtained from student textbooks.  Occasionally a local astronomy club will offer its services and conduct at “star gaze” for a limited number of students.  However, for most students at American schools, the opportunity to view planets within our solar system and deep space objects will never come.

In 2009 I tried to change that by focusing on eight  schools within the a school district located  in the Panhandle of Florida.   I wanted each school to have a simple, affordable, computerized Altitude/Azimuth mount and at least a 6″ (150mm) cassegrain telescope.   The school district obtained a large grant for the purchase of astronomy systems, and I recommended that  they buy  iOptron Alt/Az Mini Towers and iOptron 150mm Maksutov Cassegrain telescopes for all participating schools.   Eight schools volunteered to institute a program and provide volunteer teachers for training.  In the fall of 2009, the school district received all telescopes and mounts from iOptron and training commenced in December, 2009.    Initial classes focused on assembling the tripod, mount and telescope quickly and under conditions teachers would encounter during an outdoor star gaze.   No problems were encountered during this phase of the program.

The first problem that surfaced was that with a few exceptions, nearly every teacher was completely ignorant of the night sky.   While some teaching on my part took place, the burden was on each teacher to learn the sky.   I bought many basic astronomy books which were available online or at the local Barnes and Noble store and gave them to the most interested teachers.  Since the schools had allocated no money for these books, each teacher had to purchase them out of pocket or get me to do the same.  The lack of financial support from each school  to support the program proved to be a constant problem.  Meanwhile, the teachers had no idea of what deep space objects existed in the evening skies.   They did not know the difference between an open star cluster and a globular cluster, a reflection nebula and an emission nebula, a spiral galaxy and an elliptical galaxy.  On and On.  For teachers, if it wasn’t in the textbook, they were completely ignorant of what the night sky contained for viewing.  This problem persists to the present day at star gazes offered by local astronomy clubs.   Once the astronomer leaves the Solar System, students and teachers have no idea of what they are looking at.

The second problem was encountered by the female teachers in the group.    While the 150mm Maksutov Cassegrain telescope was considered by most male astronomers to be a lightweight telescope, female teachers had a real problem getting the scope out of the case and onto the mount, balanced and secured.  Most brought husbands along to help with this task.

The third problem for teachers was learning how to work the mount’s computerized controls, both to align the mount and then to move from target to target during student star gazes.   For most, this proved to be the most difficult problem.   The mount had to be aligned and this required the knowledge of key stars that most teachers lacked.  Second, the teachers were unable to understand the coded identities of objects outside our Solar System.   They did not know the difference between a Messier object (M) or an object in the New General Catalog (NGC).

The fourth problem was money for program support from the schools.   For example, the 150mm Maksutov Cassegrain telescopes from iOptron came with what I would consider a very inferior 1.25″ diagonal and two 1.25″ eyepieces, one high power and the other moderate power.   Given the problems students had in learning how to look through a telescope eyepiece in the first place, these small 1.25″ instruments made things especially difficult.   After much cajoling schools finally provided 2″ star diagonals for each telescope but were unwilling to spend the additional money for a 2″ eyepiece to match it.   I bought several 2″ eyepieces for motivated teachers out of my own pocket.  But in the end it did little good, as these teachers moved on and no teachers volunteered to step up and learn what was needed to keep the program going at their school.

After three years, the program basically collapsed.  The two exceptions were (1) a teacher who was already an astronomer with his own equipment was able to conduct regular star gazes for his students, but even here, he could only handle small groups, so he limited the observing program to the gifted and talented classes. (2) one especially dedicated teacher who taught herself astronomy and worked with the mount and scope so much that she became a master at its operations and very knowledgeable about astronomy in general.  Teachers like this one, did not exist at the other schools.

So, success with this program is indeed possible for school astronomy programs using moderately sophisticated astronomy equipment, but only with the highest degree of dedication from the teachers involved.    Today, those high quality iOptron mounts and telescopes are are tucked away in  storage closets in  most schools originally in the program  as the teachers go back to the old practice of asking nearby astronomy clubs to schedule star gazes for their students.  Its ironic that schools often had better equipment in their storage closets than that which local astronomers brought to the star gazes.

Conclusion:  Its the dedication of the teachers that is the key to any successful school astronomy program.  It makes no difference what kind of equipment is involved or if the teachers don’t now astronomy in general, the dynamics of the night sky.  If the teachers are not willing to put in the time to learn what they must teach and then meet with their students under night skies, long after school has been dismissed, the program will never succeed.

I am more than willing to consult for free with any school considering instituting an astronomy program or astronomy club within the school so as to avoid the mistakes made with the program I was involved with for three years.

Posted in Uncategorized 8 years, 11 months ago at 6:26 am.

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