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Wyoming Students Will Explore the Universe with Robotic Telescope

December 4, 2009
This telescope in Bathurst, Australia, is similar to the one planned to be used at Sheridan County's Tongue River Elementary School. (David McKinnon Photo)

Students from across the state will have an opportunity to track asteroids and discover new planets through the efforts of a team of University of Wyoming faculty members.

Tim Slater, who in 2008 became UW's Endowed Chair of Science Education, has focused his research on engaging Wyoming students in science and technology through astronomy, robotics and energy education. To conduct this research, Slater leads a project to build a large robotic telescope at Tongue River Elementary School in Ranchester in Sheridan County.

The telescope, which can be controlled through the Internet, will be used to study asteroids, particularly ones close to Earth's orbit; to study the moons around other planets; and to look for planets around other stars.

"Of course, these will just be jumping off points, and then kids can start to develop projects of their own," says Slater. "There are an astronomically large number of possibilities."

The elementary school's students get first use of the telescope, which is on the school's property. Eventually, use of the telescope will be open to all Wyoming schools, and ultimately it will be a tool for students worldwide through the Internet.

The researchers hope this telescope project will assist in developing the Las Cumbres Global Telescope Network. Although not operational yet, the LCGTN will have 40 telescopes across the planet that will be open to students and scientists worldwide.

"The Sheridan County telescope will be a pilot case to get an idea of how this sort of thing works before the whole LCGTN goes online," says Stephanie Slater, UW outreach professor of science education.

The Wyoming telescope may be a starting point for the LCGTN, but that doesn't mean the scientists working on the project are starting from scratch.

"Members of our team have 30 years of experience working from Minnesota to Australia to Hilo, Hawaii," says Slater.

Much of this experience comes from David McKinnon of Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, Australia. McKinnon conducted a similar study with students in Australia with much success, prompting the LCGTN to bring him to UW.

"Astronomy is an exciting science, so it is the vehicle we have chosen to capture kids' imaginations," says McKinnon.

Stephanie has worked on similar projects in Minneapolis and Hawaii, and has seen the positive effects these projects can have on children.

"The kids we work with usually don't see themselves as capable or important in science," she says. "These projects give them the set of skills and enthusiasm they need to apply to real life problems. We get kids hooked with robotics and astronomy, and they move on to be wind turbine engineers."

Stephanie says some of the students she's worked with had no interest in science at the beginning of projects, but she soon saw those same kids staying in the lab for hours after school and weekends to get more work done.

"There's some magic that goes on there," says Stephanie.

A series of events led to the Wyoming telescope project: Slater and specialized professors arriving at UW; Steve Mecca, the Wyoming coordinator for Sky TITAN, receiving a Wyoming Trust Fund Grant to buy the telescope equipment; and Sheridan School District #1 being open to innovation.

"Sheridan has the highest state test scores in writing and math, so it was a good place to start since it already has a foundation of successful teachers," says Stephanie. "They already have a lot of good things going on in their schools."

Additionally, she says Sheridan County's conditions make it an ideal location for telescope viewing.

"We hope that the work that gets done in Ranchester will spread across the country, transforming science education," says McKinnon.

The Slaters say this project will be a huge step to highlighting UW on an international scene.

"This project not only benefits the children of Wyoming, but it will be a huge component on the path to building UW's reputation at the center of astronomy and energy education," says Stephanie.

The team hopes the telescope will be operational within the next 18 months, but the exact time will depend upon funding.

"We are actively looking for people who would like to support this program financially," says Slater.

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