So as technology advances, it’s easy to see why teachers are harnessing its power to bring the galaxy within their students’ reach.
Ray Priskich, head of science at Sacred Heart College in Sorrento WA, is one such teacher.
Last year, he completed a mission to bring outer space right into the homes of his students via a high-tech, research-grade telescope built on campus.
“It is a telescope but it’s robotic and it can be remotely controlled, so it’s basically computer-driven,” Priskich explains.
“So unlike a traditional telescope where it’s just optics and you point at it, you get it to move according to commands.
“So [it’s] robotic in a sense that you can command it and remote in the sense that you can do it from distance, so you can be in another classroom, a student could be at home at their study desk, and they could be doing that.”
The impressive instrument is housed in an observatory, with parts sourced from all over the globe.
“The telescope’s from Germany, the mount is from the United States, the dome itself is from Queensland, the software’s from Canada,” Priskich says.
The school took the advice of a consultant from Advanced Telescope Supplies in Sydney, who helped them put together the world class instrument, which Priskich says is, optically, the best in Australia, and one of the largest at a high school in the southern hemisphere.
The telescope has been welcomed by students in the Year 9 astronomy elective, and the school’s astronomy club. One of its unique features, Priskich says, is the ability to take pictures through different colour filters.
“You’ll be able to split the light up through a spectrograph, or a spectrometer, you can do chemical analysis through that as well,” he says.
“There’s some very sophisticated tracking that’s required on the part of the users as well, so its high-end tracking of a guide star, for example.
“That’s something that the computer interrogates and has it in view, and then as the atmosphere is a little unsteady and the stars twinkle a little bit, the position [of the star] changes, and the computer compensates automatically, in real time.
“It’s always keeping it sharply focussed, and that way you don’t get a blurred image.”
Priskich also says the instrument boasts some pretty impressive image processing software, which is able to minimise light pollution.
“So the images that you get initially don’t look all that impressive, but once you use image processing software, you can extract the data and highlight the good parts about it, so that when you finally get the last image it’s really quite surprising and it’s just gobsmacking what you can get.”
Priskich has extended the invitation to parents to use the exciting new facility, and is also planning on involving other schools, through an astrophysics summer camp for students in the Perth area.
“There’s always time to go to the beach, but there’s a few people that would like to do those extra things at night, so, we’re going to try to get a few schools together…” he says.
For students, Priskich says studying astronomy has enormous value.
“It’s a critical thinking exercise, it’s problem-solving, there’s a creative element to it all as well, so these are higher order learning objectives that we want to get from students.
“So, it’s not just ‘take a pretty picture and be done with it’, because we’d like to go further with this, and the students can undertake real research which could assist professionals as well.
“So, it’s more than just an exercise in taking images, it’s trying to understand circumstances in space, and that, like any problem, you need to solve, requires higher-order thinking.”
Over on the east coast, students at Trinity Grammar in Sydney have set about solving a problem of their own.
A team of 25 boys have launched an experiment, to find out if the acceleration of the international space station is affected by coronal mass ejections, which physics teacher Erin Munn says, is a type of solar flare.
Facilitated by Cuberider, high school students have been given the opportunity to design and code experiments that will be tested in space on the International Space Station.
When Munn spread the word of this opportunity among her students, she was overwhelmed with eager participants.
So with more interested students than she could take, Munn called for applications using Google Forms, asking students to express interest in one of four subgroups – electronics, coding, experimentalists and mathematics.
“They needed to provide a portfolio of work to show their interest outside of school, in pursuing something in that area, and it was excellent,” Munn says.
“Some of the boys actually created and designed web pages as an interactive portfolio of work…”
Once the group was selected, they set to work finding a hypothesis they wanted to explore. Eventually they settled on the topic of coronal mass ejections.
“So the idea behind that is that the solar flare throws out particles that sometimes stream and hit the earth,” Munn explains.
“Could those particles be colliding with the international space station to essentially slow it down?”
Students were set up in an online classroom, Munn had control of the content in the main classroom, but each subgroup had their own area which they could use to communicate with each other and share ideas.
“Even though I was only having one meeting a week, each boy was clocking about six log-ons a week,” Munn says.
“And they were spending upwards of two or three hours on their log-on just communicating with each other and sending each other bits of code that they had put together, and improvements and feedback on that.”
Students in charge of coding had to become team experts in Python, which they then taught to the rest of the group.
“Everyone in that group got exposure to the programming language, whether they were in the sub-coding group or not,” Munn says.
“They programmed just little activities, little tasks they had to do using the language … just to show they were competent in it, then after that the coding group would start going through and coding the actual practical of what they were going to do.
“But it was on the experimentalists and mathematicians as well, to look at what they were doing, and make sure they understood what each line of code was trying to achieve and make sure that it would be achieving the goal that they set out in their method design.”
The project certainly captured students’ attention, and with very little encouragement needed from Munn, the online classroom was a hive of activity.
“So they would send documents over explaining to the hardware guys, the electronic subgroup would send over documents to the experimentalists in their design, where they had made a little schematic of the board we were using and where all the sensors were and the ranges.
“So they had tested all the ranges on each sensor, so that the experimentalists could then use that information to better design the experiment