The Educational Outreach group at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, AZ, has developed an educational module as part of the design and development phase of the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope project. At present there are three giant telescopes in development: the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), and the European Extremely Large telescope (E-ELT). Although the science objectives for these telescopes have been outlined, it will be several years before “First Light” and the beginning of scientific data gathering for any of these projects. Consequently, the first educational modules in this project address engineering aspects of telescope design and development.
The first module is Astronomical Site Selection. It is based on the successful module designs used in the Astronomy Village and Exploring the Environment educational products developed at NASA’s Classroom of the Future in Wheeling, WV.
The module’s pedagogy is open-ended, problem-based learning (see http://www.cotf.edu/ete/teacher/teacherout.html more information on PBL):
Students are presented with a real-world problem to solve and they are provided with authentic information and data relevant to the problem.
Both the problem—selection of a site for a billion-dollar giant telescope—and the data are the same as that being worked on by project scientists.
Students are provided with guidelines how to reach a solution—but there is no “correct” answer. As in real-world engineering problems, the validity of the students’ conclusion is based on the completeness and accuracy of the data they have gathered and the rigor of the supporting analysis they present.
The module is designed for grades 8—12, but can be used with advanced younger students.
The module has a number of specifications for students to examine for three different potential observatory sites. Specific information is provided for each site within the module, but links are also provided that lead students to outside data sources (observatory & project web pages, global weather resources, map resources, etc.) that can be explored for additional data relevant to the problem. Thus there is some flexibility in the class time used for the module: 2—3 class periods for a “short version” principally using information in the module, up to about 10 class periods (2 weeks) for a more rigorous data search and analysis using external sources.
In this approach, divide your students into research “teams” of a few students each and assign each team at least one site to examine (different sites for different teams). Each team will evaluate their assigned site in all the specifications, so they must become “generalists” with some knowledge in each specifications (weather, geography, etc.). Upon completion of the module, the teams present their results to each other in a classroom “Site Selection Conference.” If you have enough students to assign more than one team to each site, the teams may compete for the best presentation and defense of their decision. Alternatively, you can assign each team two or more sites to examine, in which case students gain additional experience by working with more than one set of data, and the discussion in the final conference should be more intense. The “one team—one site” version will take less class time, while the “one team—many sites” version will take longer.
For this approach use the Generalist Data Sheets.
In this approach, divide your students into five teams and assign each team to be become specialists in one of the five content areas: geography, seeing, weather, light pollution, and logistics. Each team will evaluate all three sites for their category. When all the teams have completed their evaluations, each team fills in their portions of the Site Selection Evaluation Matrix and as a class complete the matrix and obtain a solution together. In this way, students will see how their individual expertise contributes to the solution of a complex problem.
For this approach, use the Specialist Data Sheets.
Assign your students as teams or individuals one to three of the sites, evaluate them as in the “Generalist Approach” and them have them make make formal repots in a “Press Conference” where they present their reports without peer review.
For this approach use the Generalist Data Sheets
This module includes various aspects of the iterative process used by professional engineers to solve problems. You can learn more about the problem solving cycle used by engineers by visiting the Dartmouth Project for Teaching Engineering Problem Solving.
Student learning may be assessed by having them provide written reports for formal grading. Alternatively, you may grade the students on their presentation and defense in the “Site Selection Conference.”
The Site Selection module can be used to connect students to the world around them. Have them evaluate the community in which they live as a possible site for a large telescope using the same specifications as in the module. Most of the issues are geographical/environmental, and most of the data can be found online using the links in the module. Alternatively have them look around the world to find and evaluate their own world-class observatory site for the next big telescope.
Students can also become involved in the community by participating with astronomical organizations like local amateur clubs or the International Dark Skies Association in preserving astronomically dark skies.