Should Your Astronomy Students Do Telescope Observing Online?

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

Is telescope observing important for the non-science majoring undergraduate student in the introductory astronomy ASTRO 101 course?  My experience is that most ASTRO 101 professors quickly answer, “YES, of course!”  But, after further discussion, it turns out that different people imagine a pretty wide assortment of things when they promote that their students should do some observing.

For many ASTRO 101 professors, “observing” really means one thing and one thing only—putting one’s eye up to an eyepiece and letting light from craters on the Moon, rings around Saturn, and a smudge of a distant galaxy enter a student’s eye.  For these instructors, they desire their students to experience the wonder and beauty of astronomy. A much smaller subset of these instructors think their students will benefit greatly if their students to learn how to set up a backyard telescope, select and focus eyepieces, and find objects in the sky.  An even smaller subset might adopt a service learning approach and ask their students to put on a star party for the community at the county fair or even set up in the parking lot of the local supermarket.

Certainly, not every ASTRO 101 class has telescopes. Some instructors think of observing in terms of students becoming more engaged in becoming aware of their environment. Generations of teachers have long asked their students to chart the shape and position of the Moon each night for a month, or to measure the changing length of noontime shadows or to carefully monitor the direction of the setting Sun across the western horizon.  All of these approaches to observing are long standing practices across the community of ASTRO 101 instructors.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are ASTRO 101 instructors who do not believe strongly that their students need to have observing experiences using telescopes.  For these instructors, my sense is that they don’t find value in providing students with observing experiences. For some, this rejection of observing is because they teach in learning environments that are difficult to manage.  Perhaps they teach at on an inner city campus, where security and lighting are issues that are impossible to solve.  Or, perhaps they teach at a commuter campus for which students returning to class after hours just isn’t an option.  And, some ASTRO 101 courses enroll hundreds of students to be managed by a single instructor, making individualized learning events seemingly impossible. These are real barriers to observing that can’t be waived off as being superficial.

For other professors who do not go to the lengths necessary to provide students with observing experiences, I believe that their rejection of student observing is sometimes more aligned with the notion that professional astronomers and astrophysicists allocate precious little time looking through an eyepiece to do their research, and they believe that ASTRO 101 courses should also reflect this scenario.

I suspect that a question of should my students observe or not is actually a sub-question to a much larger, ongoing debate among the broader ASTRO 101 teaching community.  Specifically, should ASTRO 101 be more of an astrophysics course focusing on recent professional astronomy research results OR should ASTRO 101 be more focused on an amateur astronomy and night sky naturalist-style course?  I would argue that which side an instructor comes down on regarding student astronomical observing has more to do with what they themselves actually know about observing than one of a philosophical or pedagogical argument.

It is certainly true that not all astronomers, regardless of their degree, know how to run a telescope.  I’ve heard more than one of my colleagues humorously tell me about an astronomy colleague couldn’t find the Big Dipper if their life depended on it!  I wager that the degree to which someone supports using telescopes with real eyepieces is highly dependent on their own comfort and skillset regarding what might be called amateur astronomy.

One potential solution we have been pursuing is the degree to which we might be able to effectively use remote observing experiences successfully with ASTRO 101 students.  In this sense, remote observing is slang for students obtaining astronomical data from a telescope far from where they are located. To be more precise, professional astronomers typically distinguish between (i) “robotic observing,” where an observation plan is submitted to a telescope that then robotically and autonomously carries out the observing, and (ii) “remote observing,” where a telescope user is actually moving and controlling a telescope in a far-away place using an Internet-connection in real-time.  For my purposes, the distinction isn’t critically important to the debate.

Slooh remote telescopeThere are numerous opportunities for non-professional astronomers to access remotely controlled telescopes.  For $49, Slooh (http://www.slooh.com) provides nearly unlimited access to telescopes taking pictures of any object you can point at from the Canary Islands or in South America.  Micro-Observatory’s Observing With NASA’s OWN project (http://mo-www.cfa.harvard.edu/OWN/) allows anyone to request images online which are effortlessly delivered to one’s email box the next day, using a variety of filters and exposure times along with user-friendly software.  Perhaps most promising, Los Cumbres Global Telescope Network (http://www.lcogt.net) is promising the community with relatively easy access to 1-m and 2-m class telescopes around the globe.  This is a purposefully, non-exhaustive list for sure, but gives you a range of ideas for what might be available.

Unquestionably, the broadly defined remote observing has great potential to dissolve many of the barriers related to those who work in learning environments where there are telescopes do not or cannot exist as well as working with students who cannot easily meet with their ASTRO 101 instructor in the evening.  If carefully structured, this might also be able to solve the rapidly growing large-enrollment class problem.  And most promisingly, looking toward the future where many more institutions will be moving their astronomy classes to online learning environments rather than face-to-face, remote observing in one form or another will be a necessary approach.  None of this solves a desire to have students “get outside and let a million or billion year old photon impact your eye,” but it is a step toward increasing the number of students who might have a chance to DO astronomy rather than just listen to someone lecture about it.Remote Control Telescope in Wyoming SkyTitan

More than this, the number of potential astronomy education research questions surrounding remote control telescopes are boundless. As examples, consider that we just don’t yet know: what students actually learn by looking through telescopes, let alone by looking at pictures in their textbooks; are eyepiece observing experiences a necessary step in the professional astronomy career pipeline; does looking through telescopes create misconceptions in students about how professional astronomers contribute to scholarly knowledge; and precisely which skills and attitudes do students gain by using telescopes?  And, is any of this age, gender, or culturally dependent? The list goes on and on, but I’ll pose my personal favorite research question flavor of the month, “What is the difference between a student looking at a beautiful picture of Saturn taken by the Cassini mission and their very own fuzzy image they took themselves by clicking a mouse at precisely the right time?”


We have had some good luck using online Internet databases to access the vast amount of astronomical data available, including the simulators that are getting better and better every year.  We have designed a series of labs for ASTRO 101 students using these databases in the form of backwards faded scaffolding labs used in “Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry” (Slater, Slater & Lyons, 2010)).  But, to be honest, the ASTRO 101 teaching and learning community hasn’t yet successfully figured out how to utilize remote observing in this pedagogical format.  My opinion is that this is a teaching and learning problem worth working on together.  It’s a big problem, so I suspect we’ll have to get their iteratively in small steps of progress.  How can you imagine using remote observing with your students, if you would at all?

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