The members of the Orion Circle and Orion Supernova play a key role in McDonald Observatory’s work in K-12 science education and outreach in Texas and the U.S. and receive special invitation to the annual Orion Festival at McDonald Observatory in West Texas.
In the months since the Orion Festival — when I had the pleasure of sharing some news and research coming out of the Texas Astronomy program — our astronomers, students, engineers, and fundraisers have all been well occupied with the mission of promoting astronomy to the public, whether through research or education programs, or both.
Director David Lambert
Astronomers from UT and Wesleyan University discovered more about an evaporating planet the size of Jupiter, in the constellation Vulpecula, through the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Dr. Seth Redfield, the lead investigator on the project, began his research while a post-doctoral fellow at UT Austin. He later joined Wesleyan as an assistant professor, where he continued the project with Drs. Bill Cochran and Mike Endl, of UT, also serving on the research team. In June, components of this research were brought to Texas teachers at the “Worlds Beyond Our Solar System” professional development workshop, thanks to partial funding from the National Science Foundation and McDonald Education Endowment donors.
More recently, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team, of which UT's Eiichiro Komatsu was a part, received a $500,000 prize from the Gruber Foundation in light of the team’s discoveries concerning the age, shape, make up, and origin of the universe. Other projects continue to see good progress, and a few are highlighted here:
Giant Magellan Telescope
The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) will be a 25-meter telescope to be cited in Chile by 2020. Then it will be the world's largest. UT Austin is one of the founding partners, and our faculty, students, and researchers plan to use the GMT to study the first galaxies to have been formed after the Big Bend, as well as to study planets around nearby stars. In early spring, a series of controlled mountain blasts in the Andes Mountains began in order to prepare the site's foundation. In the coming year, the aim is to complete the design process and continue manufacturing the 8.4-meter primary mirror segments. GMT Development Director Carolyn Porter is leading fundraising for UT's share and reports that the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors is launching a $3 million kick-off campaign, and support by individuals, including Orion member Joe Orr, is being committed. For more information, please feel free to contact Carolyn.
The Hobby-Eberly Telescope and Dark Energy Experiment
Work to prepare the Hobby-Eberly Telescope for the Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX) is still underway and remains competitive. Astronomers Gary Hill and Karl Gebhardt are leading the project, and the galaxy survey is now estimated to begin in 2014.
Major innovations and improvements to the HET are in progress independently of the HETDEX project. For example, Phillip MacQueen is upgrading the high-resolution spectrograph, one of the HET's key instruments, and HET staff are commissioning equipment enabling the 91 mirror segments to be coated with a highly reflective layer.
With so many technical efforts underway, this summer marked the beginning of a HETDEX-related education and outreach program. Dr. Keely Finklestein, who has been working with Mary Kay Hemenway in education and outreach, helped lead Texas high school students through a pilot program about HETDEX at the Observatory in June. Her article Austin Area Students gives a full report on the project, which she says was impressive in part because of the students’ own enthusiasm about working with astronomers for a week.
Finally, with the Transit of Venus in June, the opportunity to engage students of all ages in astronomy was nothing short of brilliant. In West Texas, cloudy skies early in the day on June 5 (the peak of the transit from our view) gave the impression that the many visitors interested in seeing live views of Venus might leave the Observatory disappointed. But that was not the case. The clouds dispersed in late afternoon, and the Visitors Center staff guided visitors in programs centered on the transit, including demonstrations, science talks, and observations. In Austin, a good number of undergraduate and graduate astronomy students volunteered their time after hours in order to welcome hundreds of visitors to Robert Lee Moore (RLM) Hall on the UT campus. The line to see the transit through telescopes atop RLM at one point wound down about a dozen flights of stairs. Even though the wait was an hour or two for some, the sense of excitement remained high, and the public outreach opportunity was a success in Austin as in West Texas.
Of course, the ability to conduct astronomical research and make new discoveries is great. But so is the ability to share all of that with students, teachers, and people like you. That’s what your support in the Orion Circle provides. For that, I thank you.
David L. Lambert
Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair in Astronomy
Austin Area Students Live, Learn, Do Research at McDonald
By Keely Finklestein
Ten students from five Austin-area high schools were invited to attend a week-long research program at McDonald Observatory June 17–23. UT’s Dr. Irina Marinova and I led the research program, along with help from two Austin teachers, Wade Green of Stony Point High School and Sherre Boothman of Lehman High. The research experience was a pilot program designed to see how high school students can be involved in astronomical research related to the study of dark energy and in support of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). HETDEX astronomer Karl Gebhardt and Sandra Preston, Assistant Director for Education and Outreach, conceived the program and are seeking funding from the National Science Foundation to take it from the pilot stage to something larger.
The students spent the week at McDonald Observatory participating in real astronomical research while staying at the Astronomers Lodge. During the day, they learned how telescopes work (including the remote-observing MONET telescope) and how to collect data. They also toured the research telescopes; participated in some of the same hands-on activities that teachers in professional development workshops do; listened to astronomy talks; and created media projects — including a blog — as a way to advertise and explain their research experience. At night they stayed up observing until the early morning hours and spent time running the telescope, collecting real data, and reducing it.
The week provided this band of 10 with a unique hands-on experience that showed how the full process of astronomical research and taking observations works. This, and the opportunity to informally interact with astronomers and engineers who do research and maintain the Observatory, presented many of the participants with an once-in-a-lifetime experience. As student Samuel Ervin put it, “Just the idea of being able to live and talk with real astronomers is mind-blowing. I know that when this week is over I shall be looking into a career that could hopefully end in being an astronomer.”
By all measures, the pilot program was very successful and was a great experience for everyone involved — for students, astronomers, and teachers. The pilot confirmed that it is possible to successfully involve high school students in research in support of the HETDEX survey, as well as to involve them in using social media to promote the survey and study of dark energy. The need for a rigorous Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) curriculum is an issue at the state and federal levels, and this project shows the possibility to inspire students to be passionate about science by directly engaging them in real astronomical research. Once the HETDEX survey begins, we will need lots of simultaneous imaging data to help calibrate the HET data. This will involve taking lots of images over many nights, and this is where the high school student research component comes in. The social media portion of the pilot program encourages students to share their experience in creative ways, which in the long run will be a great benefit to us in helping the ideas and research behind HETDEX to meet the public.
Learn more about HETDEX.
Profile in Service: Steve Hinkley Opens Doors for Awe-Inspiring Science
By Suzanne Geiger
There’s not any question as to whether Steve Hinkley loves science. He earned a degree in biology and, upon graduating, worked several years as a science teacher in Texas and California, instructing students in Earth and Life Science, Astronomy, Physics, Anatomy, and Biology. He talks about the power of science to not only help people answer questions about their world — including issues like population, energy, and transportation — but also to help people as individuals consider their place in the world.
Speaking with inimitable energy, Hinkley begins in the fifth grade, when his interest in science began, and comes full circle with his work as the Director of Education for the Museum of Nature and Science, which — in January 2013 — will relocate from Dallas's historic Fair Park to reopen as the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in a new facility, in the heart of the city’s downtown.
A native Texan who grew up in Austin, Hinkley says with conviction, “My life path has always been one way or another intertwined with science.” And it was his fifth-grade teacher Midge Kimble, whom he had for both homeroom and science at Austin’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, who lit the spark in him.
Describing his former teacher as a “great communicator and great educator," Hinkley says that Kimble encouraged students to think by asking open-ended questions rather than questions with right or wrong answers, which sometimes shame students when they answer incorrectly. He cites the way she went the extra step to create novel learning opportunities, and how it was during these times that learning became memorable — such as the numerous times that she turned on the radio in class so students could listen to the StarDate radio broadcast.
“It was not just a time to stop and explore science,” Hinkley says of StarDate, “but [it] was connecting us to something beyond where we were. It was fascinating to start the conversation of, What is out there?”
And in Austin in 1983, before widespread development white washed the night sky, the extra assignments Ms. Kimble gave to students to go out at night with their parents to stargaze and observe astronomical phenomenon also left an indelible memory.
“You could look up and see an incredible amount of detail in the sky. I could see satellites and the Milky Way. It was stunning for me, and it was time with my family. It was great to understand that my learning was connected with their learning,” he says.
While these extra assignments were not connected to the curriculum in any way, Hinkley regards them highly for the way they were offered as a means to explore.
Speaking about the support he had in the fifth grade — and later with “fantastic” science teachers he encountered in the seventh, ninth, and eleventh grades, Hinkley remarks that it takes more than just one moment or one great science class to help move a child toward developing a lifelong interest. “You can’t just start the spark," he says. “You have to keep it going, moving forward.”
Just as elementary and secondary teachers can provide a community for students in the classroom, as was Hinkley’s experience, he notes the power of informal science centers and museums to do the same.
“When we’re very young we’re in a phase where we are exploring the world with every one of our senses. Just look at babies,” Hinkley says, noting the way that infants learn about their world not only through sight and sound, but also taste and touch. “If you look at a lot of traditional education pathways . . . at where a lot of science education, in particular, goes — gradually we stop engaging many of those senses. The beauty of informal science is that it continues to engage multi-sense learning.”
And it can be another tool, Hinkley contends, through which young students — including those from disadvantaged and minority populations; and others who do not typically enter scientific fields — are given a pathway for science.
While there’s a caveat — “We’re not trying to convert everyone into scientists,” Hinkley muses — he sees informal science centers as working toward another important goal that applies to all but doesn’t depend on making scientists out of every person who enters the doors:
For the would-be future scientist, Hinkley hopes that informal science centers like the Museum of Nature and Science and McDonald Observatory can “help sustain that passion” in students past the initial spark. And in terms of everyone else: “What we can hopefully do is create a community and a population and a nation that appreciates science,” he says.
Toward that end, the $190 million project to design and build the new Perot Museum began in 2007 with the goal of attracting lifelong learners to science. “One of the greatest things our building is going to do is to find a way to engage everybody from newborns to people who are 85 or 90 years old,” Hinkley says.
With 100 percent of the money raised coming from private donations, Hinkley speaks proudly of the community that has helped make this project happen. Exhibits that focus on astronomy, the human body, sports and how they relate to science, paleontology, birds and their relationship with dinosaurs, and contemporary stories of how animals today compare to animals from 70 million years ago are all planned. Given the broad spectrum of science topics that visitors will be exposed to, Hinkley looks forward to collaborating with other science centers, including McDonald Observatory, to deliver more specialized programs and to benefit the community more.
“There is no way we can be experts at everything,” Hinkley says. “For us, the value of working with McDonald Observatory is that there are things the Observatory does that nobody else does.”
To date, collaborations may include bringing McDonald astronomers to the Nature and Science Museum for science talks — either in person or remotely — and may include collaboration on K-12 Student Field Experiences and teacher professional development, areas in which the Observatory and the Nature and Science Museum both have a history of commitment and success.
Speaking about the significant role that a teacher can play in a student's life, Hinkley says, “I think it’s fair to say that the teachers who express the most passion are the ones students remember.”
With a passion of his own, he speaks about importance of bringing science education to life for students and teachers both.
“When the teachers get rekindled, they turn that around and their students see that,” Hinkley says. “That’s an infectious sort of joy that can be passed on.”
It's the job of science museums everywhere, and it's the legacy that Hinkley himself is leaving through his work and lifelong love of science, and all the awe it inspires.
Learn more about the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
2012 Orion Festival Recap
By Suzanne Geiger
The 2012 Orion Festival, held for the first time in the spring rather than the fall, brought out several dozen Orion Circle and Orion Supernova members and their guests, for a daylong event hosted by Director David L. Lambert.
Two special guests — Teresa Lenling and Hannah Smoot, both from the Nature and Science Museum — joined Orion members for the festival, which included a science talk by UT’s JJ Hermes, a live demonstration of the “Live From McDonald Observatory” program, which Marc Wetzel conducted with Midland-area students, and a tour of the new Chow Telescope dome.
Photos from the day’s event were graciously taken by Robert Miller and are available for viewing on the McDonald Observatory Flickr site. In the meantime, please enjoy a few select images.
Please mark your calendar: The date of the 2013 Orion Festival will again be in the spring on Saturday, April 6th. For reservations at the Astronomers Lodge, visit online.