A national astronomy society has launched an outreach program that gives high school students across Canada an experience that is out of this world.
The new program provides students an opportunity to work with exoplanet transit data collected by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s (RASC) robotic telescope located in California, which is operated remotely through virtual desktops.
“We’re hoping to reach as many students as we can and show them what astronomy is really like at the university level and what kind of research you can do, even technically speaking, from your own backyard,” said Jenna Hinds, outreach coordinator for the RASC’s national office in Toronto, Ont.
“Everything that we’re doing you can do from home with the right equipment, which is pretty cool,” she said. “The main thing is so that [students] can understand what astronomy is like and get bitten by that bug to go and start looking up at the sky.”
Along with her duties as outreach coordinator, Hinds is the project lead for Robotic Telescope and Robotic Telescope for Classrooms. She said the initial program started about two years ago and has since expanded to include two components and more options for classrooms to engage with astronomy.
According to Hinds, exposing high school students to university-level astronomy was the big motivation for starting the outreach program.
“It’s sort of giving them a taste of what university is like and what astronomy is like when you’re doing it in school and not just looking up at the stars,” she said.
RASC offers both a basic program for grade 9-12 science classrooms that gives students a chance to analyze an exoplanet transit using pre-calibrated data, and a more advanced program aimed at small groups of students who want a more self-directed and in-depth learning experience.
“Our advanced program was originally designed for classrooms, but we found that classrooms did not have the time to dedicate to that massive process and so now we're targeting our advanced program at student-directed learning,” said Hinds, who added the advanced program allows students to choose their own exoplanet, collect the data using the robotic telescope, calibrate and analyze it.
To fill the gap for classroom learning, RASC created the basic program, which according to Hinds, takes out a lot of the “more detailed and less enjoyable work of the data collection.”
Hinds said the basic program provides teachers with access to PowerPoint slide shows and scripts with information about exoplanets, so they can introduce the topic to their students without having any background knowledge of astronomy.
“We found that a lot of teachers at the high school level don't specialize in astronomy, and it's kind of an intimidating subject to bridge when you're getting kids being like ‘So how do black holes form?’ and ‘Did you hear about that exoplanet that is made of diamonds?’ and that sort of stuff,” Hinds said.
“We wanted to create this program to help those teachers who don't feel as comfortable teaching astronomy, and they can get it done in two classes instead of six or seven.”
The basic program also includes a virtual field trip where students can join a live imaging session for the advanced program.
“If it's a clear night, we look at some of the cool targets that are up in space like galaxies and nebulae, star clusters and sometimes the moon and planets,” Hinds said.Both programs are available to students Canada-wide, and further information about the and beginner programs can be found at eduscope.rasc.ca