Across Australia, a revolution is happening in many schools as astronomy outreach programs give kids opportunities to do hands-on research, exploring distant stars and galaxies, and potentially sparking a lifelong enthusiasm for science.
Physicist Jacinta den Besten has run Melbourne University’s Telescopes in Schools program for five years, where she teaches teachers and students how to use the telescopes.
The program is aimed at students in Years 7–9, although students and teachers from other years often attend. There are now 12 schools across Victoria hosting research-grade computerised telescopes, with a further four due for installation in 2017.
“Students have told me that having this high-tech equipment helped them realise they would enjoy science subjects, which is pretty cool,” says Jacinta.
At a recent astronomy and lights festival held at Melbourne’s Scienceworks museum, many students involved with the Telescopes in Schools program volunteered to be helpers, talking to the public about astronomy and helping with the telescopes.
Parents are also encouraged to get involved “because conversations about science careers can grow around the dinner table”.
Telescopes in Schools is one of several outreach programs utilising astronomy research to inspire young people and encourage further take-up of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
Astronomy from the Ground Up
CSIRO’s annual ‘Astronomy from the Ground Up’ workshop, held at the Parkes Observatory in central-western NSW, provides professional development for primary and secondary school teachers who receive extensive resources, tailored to the syllabus.
And Oxford University, in partnership with the Astronomical Society of NSW, has installed a research-grade optical telescope at the Tara Anglican School for Girls. It gathers round-the-clock data for their Global Jet Watch program, which has five telescopes strategically located in schools around the globe to track changes in matter near black holes.
The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture between Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, also has a team of three outreach scientists who visit schools all over Western Australia. Their kit includes optical telescopes with special solar filters so students can safely look at the sun, and a Tiny Radio Telescope (TRT) that students can use to help them understand radio astronomy.
Kirsten Gottschalk is the acting Outreach, Education and Communications Manager at ICRAR. She says the school visits form part of the group’s wider outreach both online and through large public events, such as Curtin University’s annual Astrofest event which has exhibits, guest speakers and telescope observing.
“We also run the SPIRIT Program, which is accessible to students anywhere,” Kirsten says. “The kids can access one of two internet telescopes from their own computers and do research in school or after hours.”
Outreach programs such as these provide school students with rewarding and exciting opportunities to see distant galaxies and understand the universe. They also encourage young people to view
science as an integral part of their world, perhaps even inspiring the next generation of researchers.