McDonald Observatory explains 'space weather' to students live via statewide videoconference

13 May 2005

Fort Davis, Texas — Today, sixth through eighth-grade students in schools across Texas will be linked live via videoconference with McDonald Observatory in West Texas to learn about space weather. The event is part of the day-long videoconference “Texas Connects: Nature Speaks in Texas,” sponsored by the Texas Education Agency.

“The theme of Texas Connects is the environment. So we're going to talk about the environment around Earth, how it's constantly changing, and how it extends all the way to the Sun,” said Marc Wetzel, education coordinator for McDonald Observatory in West Texas. “We'll also be talking about the Sun itself, and showing live images of the Sun from one of our telescopes.” Wetzel will show students live views of the entire Sun, as well as up-close views of sunspots, prominences, and flares.

The Observatory's Education and Outreach Office is pursuing a growing effort in distance education. Events like Texas Connects allow McDonald Observatory a chance to reach students and teachers around the state who can't make the trip out to West Texas to visit the Observatory in person.

This past spring, the Observatory launched a pilot distance education project called “Live From McDonald Observatory.” Funded by a grant from the Amon Carter Foundation of Fort Worth, the program consisted of a series of nine videoconferences between McDonald Observatory and various schools in the Fort Worth area.

In each case, Marc Wetzel was seen live on-screen in a Forth Worth classroom, videocasting from the Observatory in West Texas. Wetzel described the work of the Observatory, showed pre-prepared video segments about the telescopes, and taught students about the Sun using live telescope images of the Sun. He asked and answered the students' questions.

The content for “Live from McDonald” - as well as the Texas Connects space weather presentation - is aligned with state-wide standards for science education outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.

“We worked with McDonald Observatory on their 'Live from McDonald' pilot program, and thought they would be a natural match for the Texas Connects program,” said Becky Yarbrough. “We encouraged the Observatory to participate.” Yarbrough is a Science Consultant with the Region XI Education Service Center in Fort Worth, which serves 10 Texas counties, including the Tarrant County area.

The Amon Carter Foundation funded the technology that makes these presentations possible, and sponsored the travel of Yarbrough and three Fort Worth-area teachers to McDonald Observatory. The Foundation also sponsored a stipend for the teachers. While at the Observatory, the group advised on the start-up of the “Live from McDonald” program and evaluated it.

The Bromberg Foundation of Galveston funded necessary upgrades to an existing 14-inch telescope at McDonald, the purchase of two new small telescopes, solar filters, and videocameras.

Videoconferencing equipment, as well as a pair of T1 high-speed Internet lines linking the Observatory and the University of Texas campus in Austin are other essential parts of the Observatory's distance education capability. These were funded by Richard King and Video Call of Austin, and Tom Semmes and The Semmes Foundation of San Antonio, respectively.

Student groups from around the state will give most of the presentations for today's Texas Connects event. Besides McDonald Observatory, other agency presenters include the Fort Worth Nature Center, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Trinity River Authority along with the River Legacy Science Center.

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