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School programs at the Rothney Observatory offer hands-on learning

Local elementary and junior high school students learn about astronomy, optics and technology at unique astrophysical facility
October 7, 2015
The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory is a teaching and research facility operated by the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science, located south of Calgary. Photo courtesy Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory is a teaching and research facility operated by the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science, located south of Calgary. Photo courtesy Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

Half of the 8,000 to 10,000 visitors that the RAO receives each year consists of school groups. Many classes visit and participate in astronomical education and telescope viewing. Photo by Jennifer Howse, University of Calgary

Half of the 8,000 to 10,000 visitors that the RAO receives each year consists of school groups. Many classes visit and participate in astronomical education and telescope viewing. Photo by Jennifer Howse, University of Calgary

Jennifer Howse develops and delivers school programming as RAO's education specialist. Photo courtesy of Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

Jennifer Howse develops and delivers school programming as RAO's education specialist. Photo courtesy of Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

Grade 9 students conducting science activity at the University of Calgary's Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. Photo by Jennifer Howse, University of Calgary

Grade 9 students conduct science activity at the University of Calgary's Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. Photo by Jennifer Howse, University of Calgary

With October now underway, the school year is in full swing. On main campus, this means undergraduate students filling lecture halls and laboratories. But at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory (RAO), south of Calgary, it means yellow buses dropping off classes of schoolchildren in its interpretive centre parking lot.

The RAO is a principal teaching and research facility operated by the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science. But it also serves as a valuable resource for grades 6, 8 and 9 teachers in school systems in Calgary and surrounding areas.

Jennifer Howse was hired in March 2006 as the RAO’s education specialist. It’s her job to develop and deliver school programming.

“The first visitor centre on this site consisted of two ATCO trailers joined together, so programming options were limited,” says Howse. “Our existing interpretive centre, which opened in 2005, has seating for over a hundred, a modern audio-visual system and interactive displays. This building allows us to offer programs for up to 10 school groups a week during the academic year.”

Programs complement Alberta science curriculum

The elementary and junior high Alberta Learning science curriculum contains units relating to astronomy, optics and technology. Over the past nine years, Howse, with help from graduate students in the department, has developed programs that explore these topics. They also create customized senior high programming.

“Some teachers bring their classes back year after year,” says Howse. “Students can tour the observatory buildings and explore science concepts through hands-on indoor activities and presentations. We have several smaller telescopes available for solar viewing during the day and observations of planets and other celestial objects at night.”  

Outreach serves schools, community groups and general public

Of the 8,000 to 10,000 visitors that the RAO receives each year, about half consist of school groups. The other half is made up of youth community groups such as Scouts and Guides, who come for specialized astronomy badge programming, and the public who attend the open houses.

“Jennifer was originally hired to develop public outreach events but we’ve grown far beyond that with the school programming she and the graduate students have created and deliver," says Phil Langill, RAO director and senior instructor in the physics and astronomy department. "Our surveys have shown teachers really appreciate the RAO, which provides their classes with a truly unique educational experience.”

"Thousands come to the RAO each year to learn and get excited about science," he adds. "It's a wonderful university and community win-win that other institutions in Canada are trying to emulate.”

This academic year, Howse is working with Mark Bryant, a graduate student whose research deals with theoretical physics and the aurora borealis.

“It’s a lot of fun to get out from behind a computer and work with these school groups,” says Bryant. “At the RAO, teachers and their students are able to experience a place where science is conducted and to see and learn about the equipment. They’re very excited to come here and find it all really fascinating.”   

Howse agrees and says one of her favourite parts of a school visit is when she passes around a meteorite  a fragment of an asteroid. “I tell them this is the oldest rock you will ever hold. And ‘wow’ is the word I hear the most from students, no matter the age.”

Learn more about the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory.