ASP Meeting Updates

If you want keep up with what is happening at the ASP’s Annual Meeting on astronomy education and outreach running from today to 16 Sep at Millbrae, near San Francisco there should be a few blogs providing updates. I’ll try and do at least a daily post. Pamela Gay of Star Stryder already has a post up. Hopefully the Half-Astrophysicist will post some updates too. Please let me know of any others. For those on twitter search for updates on #asp2009.

Galileo Teacher Training Program Workshop – Day One

I’m in San Francisco for the ASP’s Annual Meeting on astronomy education and outreach. Prior to the three-day meeting I’m participating in a 1 1/2 day workshop for teachers, one of the first Galileo Teacher Training Program (GTTP) workshops held in the US. The workshop participants are mostly school teachers, some at elementary (primary), some middle school and some at high school. A few teach at community colleges then there were also a few of us astro ed professionals or spies as we were introduced as.

The day one presenters were a highly experienced bunch; Dennis Schatz from the Pacific Science Center, Andrew Fraknoi from the ASP and Foothill College and Rob Sparks from NOAO (read his blog here). Andrew started with and icebreaker activity where we all introduced ourselves then gave us an intro to Galileo followed by  an overview of the realms of the Universe, working out from the Solar System to the Milky Way then beyond. We then tackled a fun activity: Bill Gates’ Great Great Grand-daughter’s Honeymoon Trip” 10 Tourist Wonders of the Solar System. Lots of discussion about the best tourist sites in the Solar System.

Dennis Schatz demonstrating apparent orbits of Moon and Sun around Earth.

Dennis Schatz demonstrating apparent orbits of Moon and Sun around Earth.

Dennis then gave  asession on elements of effective instruction. He showed a segment from the influential film A Private Universe highlighting misconceptions by Harvard graduating students, faculty and alumni and with school students. He stressed the importance of identifying students’ preconceptions, using advance disornaizers, and analogies. Connect into real-world experiences, embed on-going assessment experiences and encourage them to reflect on their understanding with others. After morning tea Dennis continued with a session on modelling lunar phases. I found his demonstration using hula hoops of why eclipses don’t occur each month really handy and one I will try to use from now on.

After lunch Andrew introduced an activity for students to replicate Galileo’s observations of the moons of Jupiter then Dennis showed how to build a starwheel and use it within a classroom with constellation images on butchers paper on classroom walls, another great idea.

Using laser levellers and a vellum screen.

Using laser levellers and a vellum screen.

The final part of the day was presented by Rob Sparks. Every participant received their own Galileoscope! Rob showed us some effective optics demonstrations using large lenses, vellum screens and laser levellers. Spray fog reveals laser beams clearly as you can see in the photo below. We used the new construction instructions available from the Galileoscope website to build our scopes. Along the way we were able to measure the focal length of the 50mm f/10 objective lens. It was interesting to compare the difference between the 4-element eyepiece and the two-element Galilean eyepiece. The narrow field-of-view of the Galielan eyepiece makes you appreciate his skill as an observer.

Laser light rays visible via spray fog. Note the focal length of the lens.

Laser light rays visible via spray fog. Note the focal length of the lens.

Overall it was a really useful and stimulating day! Lots of ideas and activities for me to incorporate into my workshops back home.

Workshop participants; proud owners of new Galileoscopes. Tam Huynh from Evergreen Elementary School on left

Workshop participants; proud owners of new Galileoscopes. Tam Huynh from Evergreen Elementary School on left

Astronomy Education at the ASP Meeting

I’m off to San Francisco tomorrow for a week of astronomy outreach, education and teacher workshops. The main event is the Annual Meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific with the theme: Science Education and Outreach; Forging a Path to the Future. Workshops and discussion will focus on building on the success of the International Year of Astronomy and planning for the future. Focus questions are:

  • IYA: Can We Keep the Party Going?
  • Year of Science: Will Science “Speciation” Endanger Science Learning or Enhance it?
  • Refining our Practice: Can we Really Make an Impact?
  • The Future is Here: Can EPO Navigate the Digital Age?

A variety of workshops and some great keynote speakers should provide plenty of stimulation. I hope to be able to post some updates during the meeting. I’m presenting a poster about IYA activities during National Science Week in Australia then an oral presentation: Building Education Programs for ASKAP.

Prior to the meeting itself I’ll be attending two days of teacher workshops. The bulk of this will be for the Galileo Teacher Training Program which I hope to implement here in Australia. The Sunday afternoon is a special session; “SETI Speaker Series featuring scientists and researchers from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Speakers include Drs. Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, Margaret Race, and John Jenkins”. Should be interesting!

Great Movie of ATCA Reconfiguration

Here’s a great question for trivia competitions.

Q: What is Australia’s widest gauge track?

A: Forget those massive iron ore trains in WA, Australia’s widest gauge track is actually in Narrabri, northern NSW  at the Australia Telescope Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), part of the CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility.

ATCA is a radio telescope, an interferometer comprising 6x22m dish antennas. Five of these are on a 3km long E-W track with the sixth antenna a further 3km away. Five antennas can be placed at different locations along the track to vary the baselines between all the antennas. An advantage of radio telescopes is that separate antennas can be linked together electronically to simulate a telescope equal in size to the maximum baseline distance. This increases the resolution of the telescope, that is the ability to see fine detail. Having multiple antennas provides great collecting area, hence higher sensitivity, than just two antennas. It also improves what radio astronomers call u-v coverage. Over a long observing run, typically 12 hours, the signals from each antenna can be correlated to from an image in a process known as Earth-rotation synthesis.

Every month or so the antennas of ATCA can be reconfigured to new spacings. One or more of the five antennas on the track are driven to a new position then jacked up off the track to mounts. The electrical systems and fibre optics are then reconnected and the telescope is ready for operation with a new configuration. To see what happens in a reconfiguration have a look at this great movie below showing a 1 1/2 hour operation in just over 2 minutes!

The movie was made by one of the ATNF astronomers, Dr Emil Lenc during a recent reconfiguration. It was compiled from 2877 photos taken over 1.5 hours.

Science Week Activities in Geraldton & Yalgoo

Last week was a busy one, based in Geraldton in the Mid West region of Western Australia for a range of activities during National Science Week. After a day in Perth on Monday I flew up to Geraldton on Tuesday and went to give a series of talks to the students at Nagle Catholic College. Unfortunately a fight delay meant I arrived late and missed one of my scheduled talks. Luckily I was still able to give a talk about telescopes to the whole of Year 9. Despite having all just run the 1500m for their athletics competition they were engaged and well behaved. The students asked lots of interesting questions.

After a short break I returned to Nagle for an evening of teacher professional development that Mike Francis, Head of Science at Nagle, had organised for me. Teachers from Nagle, Geraldton Senior High School and Geraldton Grammar School attended. The poor weather that had delayed me in Perth persisted in Geraldton, depriving us of the chance to have a viewing night so I covered a range of practical demonstrations and indoor ideas instead. Having left my physio thermaband at home I had had to scout the clothes shops of Geraldton testing elastics to find something suitable for one of  my favourite demos – the expanding Universe. Photo below. I was joined at Nagle by Megan Argo, a postdoc from Curtin University who is passionate about astronomy outreach. She was accompanied by a new PhD student at Curtin, Kevin, and his wife Agnes.

Expanding Universe demonstartion

Expanding Universe demonstration

Wednesday morning I was up bright and early for an on-air lesson about telescopes at the Meekatharra School of the Air. The students are scattered across stations far and wide in the Mid West region with a few even up at Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. My lesson was well attended and I got some great questions. One of the mothers came on to ask about a strange light they had seen the night before. As with many folk who live in the outback I found her description detailed and helpful. She had seen a very bright light, lasting 5-6 seconds travelling east to west across 160 degrees of the night sky around 8.30pm. It was bright blue and seemed to be giving off sparks. My best guess was either a very bright meteor or possibly some space junk. It later turned out this was seen far and wide with many similar descriptions. Pity I missed it.

On-air lesson at Meekatharra School of the Air

On-air lesson at Meekatharra School of the Air

After my lesson I headed out east for a few hours to the outback with Barbara Glenister, the Mentor Principal for school in the Murchison region. We headed for Yalgoo where I and Megan were running a viewing night for students from three schools; Yalgoo Primary, Pia Wadjarri Remote Community School and Sandstone Primary. On the way we stopped to look at some of the stunning wildflowers; the Mid West region of WA is renowned as one of the best spots in the world for wildflowers.

Fortunately the clouds cleared as the afternoon progressed so by evening it was stunningly clear. We had a few 20cm Dobsonians and were able to show the students and parents a range of telescopic sights including Jupiter, the Jewel Box cluster, Omega Centauri and more. The clarity and darkness of the night sky was fantastic. The arch of the zodiacal light was prominent. The  clouds of the Milky Way showed amazing gradation and subtlety. Despite being low on the horizon I was able to point the telescope at Eta Carinae and the Keyhole Nebula and see the nebulosity clearly with pinpoint star images, an indication of the quality of the sky. We also pointed out constellation sot the students and tried out the Big Aussie Star Hunt. Needless to say we image 7 in the sky hunt!

The students were excited but tired quickly so we had a chance to spend 20 minutes photographing the sky ourselves before packing up. Luckily for me Barbara was driving so I got back safely to Geraldton late at night.

On the Thursday evening I gave a talk about the scientific work of Galileo. This was the prelude to the Junior Players of Theatre 8’s performance of Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. Their performance was done as 50’s style radio play, with the young actors changing outfits onstage for different characters. The play was somewhat condensed with links provided by a narrator/radio announcer. Overall a very enjoyable night with some fine performances by some of the young cast.

Big Aussie Star Hunt extended to 30 August.

Due to cloudy weather over much of Western Australia this week the ABC has just announced an extension to the Big Aussie Star Hunt. You can now observe Scorpius and enter your results and competition form on the website before midday Monday 31 August. Every observation logged puts you in the draw for $2,000 of goodies from the ABC Shop.

Fortunately my viewing night in WA last night was clear of clouds and absolutely stunning. Hopefully I’ll have some pics to post soon.