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Published April 21, 2023
The size of the University of Wyoming’s 2.3-meter telescope at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO) left a lasting impression on sixth, seventh and eighth grade students from Lander Middle School.
“Whoa!” they said in chorus upon entry into the 42-foot dome that houses the 25-ton telescope and its 92-inch-diameter mirror. Two groups of six students -- who made visits to WIRO March 17 and April 14 -- saw the telescope in operation and learned about astronomical research at UW before spending the night at the observatory.
“This trip was magnificent. I went to Laramie and learned about space and the UW telescope,” says Bryce Newman, a seventh grader. “You use lots of computer coding to move and change the position of the telescope. It was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot, too.”
“The observatory itself was huge,” adds seventh grader Sebastian Bannon. “I got to hear how the observatory was created, and we even got to move the telescope around.”
UW astronomers use the telescope, located on Jelm Mountain, every clear night of the year to study everything from moons in the solar systems to black holes in the distant universe, says Chip Kobulnicky, a UW physics and astronomy professor.
“Astronomy is a great entry point for young people into all kinds of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields,” Kobulnicky says. “We bring students here in the hope they will see college, and perhaps UW, as part of their futures. I am hoping other Wyoming teachers can start such an enrichment program at their schools.”
Joe Meyer, who teaches computer science and has an astronomy enrichment program at Lander Middle School, formerly taught mathematics and sponsored an astronomy club at Lander Valley High School.
A partnership between Meyer and Kobulnicky began in 2012 with the first overnight visits to the observatory. Meyer traces the idea for student trips to the observatory back to his own son’s participation as a high school student in Kobulnicky’s 2010 UW ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, which included a visit to the telescope as part of the curriculum for 48 students.
“This has always been such an amazing opportunity for my former high school and current middle school students to learn about astronomy, as well as the Linux system and computer coding used to operate the WIRO telescope,” Meyer explains. “Additionally, students learn about engineering, chemistry, physics and mathematics. I’ve taken students once or twice per year since 2012 and hope to continue our adventures. The snowcat ride up Jelm Mountain on winter trips is spectacular as well. And Dr. Kobulnicky always facilitates an on-campus planetarium show, which is mind-blowing.”
As part of her on-campus job, Kaycee Conder, a UW physics and astronomy major and a Lander Valley High School alumna, presented star shows for the group at the Harry C. Vaughan Planetarium. Conder was among a group of Lander Valley High School students who made the same visit to WIRO in 2017 and 2019 that provided inspiration for her to attend UW.
“If it hadn’t been for my trips to WIRO and the Harry C. Vaughan Planetarium, I would have most likely never pursued astronomy, let alone at the University of Wyoming,” Conder says. “I can still distinctly recall that sense of curiosity and wonder when traversing the cosmos through the planetarium and my unyielding excitement at the sheer size of WIRO, plus the fact that Carl Sagan had previously visited the telescope.
“Now, as a student and employee at the university, I have the opportunity to provide others with the same experience that led me to where I am today,” she continues. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the role that I and the amazing planetarium staff get to play in exciting young minds with the ideas of astronomy.”
Brayden Allen, a seventh grader, describes the planetarium “as an awesome time.”
“We experienced an amazing visual of our planet,” he says. “We saw Saturn. We saw millions of galaxies beyond our solar system.”
Some students found the trip up Jelm Mountain in a snowcat -- an enclosed-cab vehicle designed to traverse over snow -- an interesting experience.
“The snowcat ride was fun, yet kind of scary,” says Emmett Visher, a seventh grader.
“The snowcat ride was quite fun and beautiful,” adds sixth grader Rohan Sundaresan.
About the Wyoming Infrared Observatory
Built in 1976, WIRO’s 2.3-meter telescope is 100 percent owned and operated by UW. It was the world’s first fully computer-controlled telescope. It was the 12th largest in the world at the time of construction (it is now at least 65th largest). It is still the second-highest professional observatory in the continental U.S. after Mount Graham in Arizona, which sits at an elevation of 10,600 feet. The observatory has helped bring more than $12 million in grants and contracts to UW. Hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students have used the telescope as part of their physics and astronomy training. It has contributed to over 50 doctoral theses.