KINGMAN - Avis Johnson wasn't embarrassed to admit she was both intimidated and excited during intense training last week to learn about her school's new telescope and the role it would play in a citizen astronomy project identifying objects orbiting the sun beyond Neptune.
"It's all brand new to me," said Johnson, a teacher at Harry Reid Elementary School in Searchlight, Nev. "I've never looked through a telescope before and I'm definitely not an astronomer. I'm hoping that as I learn more here, I'll be able to move into my comfort zone. I'm not afraid of the telescope, and once I learn it, I look forward to using it."
Johnson was attending a three-day training session with other teachers at La Senita School. She was there with fellow educator Charlene Wiesenborn, a geoscience teacher at Boulder City High School, who will help Johnson operate the telescope. Students from Harry Reid eventually attend the high school.
The Searchlight school was one of only two elementary schools - the other was Mt. Tipton Elementary School in Dolan Springs - chosen for the project, which involves 60 communities along the Western U.S., from Canada to Mexico. Mostly middle and high schools have been earmarked for the research opportunity.
The communities form the Research and Education Collaborative Occultation Network (RECON), funded by the National Science Foundation. RECON is led by planetary scientists from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
The $5 million project, which included telescopes and cameras for each community, will involve up to eight coordinated observation campaigns, about 30 miles apart, each year through 2019. Teachers and students will be called in during scheduled evenings to look through the telescope, collect and record data, and video what they see.
The goal is to determine the sizes, densities and other characteristics of newly discovered Kuiper Belt Objects orbiting the sun beyond Neptune. Because these objects have been relatively undisturbed since their formation, they hold important clues about the origins of the solar system.
David Barrows, a member of the Colorado River Astronomy Club and resident of Blythe, Calif., was representing the schools in his area, which received a telescope and are part of the project. Barrows said that after setting up telescopes for random viewing in Blythe, it's nice to be part of an actual scientific project with them.
"It's an interesting concept, to be able to track and predict something using a large number of telescopes situated in different places," said Barrows. "I think this is a project that will get a lot of noteworthy attention when those predictions turn out to be accurate."
The RECON scientists spent the first training day showing the teachers how to set up the telescope without breaking it, then taught them to use it to observe planets in the sky. The next day, they added a camera to the telescope for digital videos that could be transferred to a computer.
The third day included opportunities for the teachers to work with their new equipment and learn about what RECON is looking for from them during the experiment. Each evening, the teachers gathered to search the night sky for planets and orbiting objects. The scientists said even the most inexperienced catch on quickly.
"We did a pilot project at 14 sites before we set this up, and there were a few failures at first, but they eventually got the basics," said Marc Buie, with the Southwest Research Institute. "It's remarkable how effective they can become. It does take some faith on their part, because most would say they can't do it. But I'm here to say they can. It's very empowering for them to be able to succeed."
Stefani Chase, a teacher at Lake Havasu High School, also was challenged by the information she was gathering at the training session, as well as the intricacies of the telescope. Chase said she is getting ready to teach a unit on astronomy and the training and telescope will help with it.
"This is all new to me, and I'm learning a lot," said Chase. "It's a wonderful opportunity to integrate technology into our classrooms. I think I'll be successful in setting up the telescope and teaching it to our teachers and students, and hopefully we'll see something they're looking for. But whether we do or not, the information we get from this experience will still be valuable."
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