McDonald Observatory has a lot to offer teachers.
The Galaxies Galore teacher workshop at McDonald Observatory ran from June 19-21, 2017. I was lucky enough to be the master teacher for the event. A master teacher’s role is to help the observatory staff and astronomers run the event. I wanted to get my thoughts all in one place to share with others how extraordinary these learning opportunities can be. Thanks to Dr. Keely Finkelstein from UT Astronomy and Marc Wetzel from McDonald Observatory for giving me this chance to be the master teacher for a workshop.
The workshop has 4 big things to offer a science teacher:
- Behind-the-scenes tours of research telescopes
- Observing on high-quality observatory telescopes
- Direct access to scientists and their tools and research
- Inquiry-based classroom activities from a variety of sources
Tours of research-grade observatories
The location in the West Texas Davis mountains is beautiful and unlike anything else in other parts of the state. The skies are dark and usually clear during the night. It’s a mountain desert environment in a very sparsely populated part of Texas.
The three big research telescopes are the Otto Struve 2.1m telescope, which was the original structure and the only one when the observatory opened, the Harlan J Smith 2.7m telescope, and the Hobby-Eberly telescope (or HET).
Hands-on observing with on-site and personal telescopes
A few participants had telescopes and binoculars, and I brought my 10-inch Dobsonian reflecting telescope as well, but the workhorse of our observing was the 0.9m (36″) reflecting telescope on Mt. Locke just down the hill from the 2.1m building. This telescope has a fantastic singing slewing system that makes it seem like the telescope is humming a tune when slewing to a target. The skies are dark out in West Texas and in just 2 hours we saw all the targets listed in the table below. Marc Wetzel also opened up the 16″ telescope he uses for classroom video conferencing so we could view Venus during the day and do some solar viewing.
Observing List for June 20 2017 (note 2 daytime targets)
|Sun||Visitor Center 3-inch / Hydrogen-alpha, and white light filters||Solar system object|
|Venus (daytime)||Visitor Center 16-inch / 15mm (Tuesday June 20th, 9:30am)||Solar system object|
|Jupiter||36-inch / 42mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm||Solar system object|
|Saturn||36-inch / 42mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm||Solar system object|
|Albireo||10-inch Dob / 15mm||Double star|
|M 6 / Butterfly Cluster||Meade ETX 70 / 9mm||Open star cluster|
|M 7 / Ptolemy Cluster||10-inch Dob / 15mm||Open star cluster|
|M 8 / Lagoon Nebula||Meade ETX 70 / 9mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm||Emission nebula|
|M 13 / Hercules Cluster||36-inch / 42mm||Globular star cluster|
|M 17 / Swan Nebula||10-inch Dob / 15mm||Emission nebula|
|M 51 / Whirlpool Galaxy||36-inch / 42mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm||Spiral galaxy|
|M 57 / Ring Nebula||36-inch / 27mm, 10-inch Dob / 15mm||Planetary nebula|
|M 87||36-inch / 30mm||Elliptical galaxy|
|M 101 / Pinwheel Galaxy||36-inch / 42mm||Spiral galaxy|
|M 104 / Sombrero Galaxy||36-inch / 42mm||Spiral galaxy|
|NGC 4565 / Needle Galaxy||36-inch / 42mm||Spiral galaxy|
|NGC 6543 / Cat’s Eye Nebula||36-inch / 27mm||Planetary nebula|
|Omega Centauri||10-inch Dob / 15mm||Globular star cluster|
Teachers get access to astronomers and their research
Participants in these workshops stay where the astronomers stay and eat meals with them. They get to hear from the scientists directly. We also tour the various telescopes and hear from the current researcher on site. There are also video conference sessions with scientists about topics related to the workshop. It’s an up-close view of the modern science of astronomy. This workshop was part of a program associated with galactic astronomer Dr. Steve Finkelstein at UT Astronomy and was galaxy-themed.
Participants learn inquiry-based astronomy lessons
Teaching using inquiry-based lessons can be tough. The whole workshop models inquiry-based teaching and participants actually work through activities and lessons they can use with their students. All the material plus much, much more goes home with the teachers so they can use the material in class with their own students.