Skynet-Based Curricula

Many educators have developed their own Skynet-based experiences. Here, we present some of the larger (statewide, national, and international) programs that the Skynet team has contributed to directly.

Mosaic of images of  NEO  2001 FE90 obtained simultaneously from Skynet telescopes at  Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory  in Chile and  Dark Sky Observatory  in North Carolina. A parallactic shift of ≈8’ and a rotational period of ≈30 minutes can be measured from the images.

Mosaic of images of NEO 2001 FE90 obtained simultaneously from Skynet telescopes at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and Dark Sky Observatory in North Carolina. A parallactic shift of ≈8’ and a rotational period of ≈30 minutes can be measured from the images.

Undergraduate and advanced High school

Our Place In Space! (OPIS!)

Funded by a $250K NSF TUES award

OPIS! is a Skynet-based laboratory curriculum for non-majors and potential majors alike. OPIS! is built around the cosmic distance ladder, which serves as an organizing principle in most introductory astronomy courses/sequences, and as such, it reinforces students’ classroom experiences. The goal of OPIS! is to move beyond laboratory experiences in which students learn how to use a telescope for its own sake, to instead using them to do science, and furthermore, to do the same science that they are learning in class.

After an introductory lab in which students learn how to use (1) Skynet and (2) our image-analysis application, Afterglow, students, either individually or as a class, collect and measure their own images to distinguish between geocentric and heliocentric models using the phase and angular size of Venus (Lab 3), to measure the mass of a Jovian planet using the orbit of one of its moons and Kepler’s Third Law (Lab 3), to measure the distance to an asteroid using parallax measured simultaneously by Skynet telescopes in different hemispheres (Lab 4; e.g., see the figure above), and to measure the distance to a globular cluster using an RR Lyrae star as a standard candle (Lab 5). More is done with archival data that takes longer than a semester to collect (e.g., Cepheid stars, Type Ia supernovae, etc.). See the figure below for more.

OPIS! is a series of eight, interconnected labs that teach the evolution of our understanding of Earth’s place in the universe, and the cosmic distance ladder. Lab 6 makes use of what was learned in Lab 5 to teach the  Great Debate . In Lab 7, students will use Skynet to collect  21-cm spectroscopy  from  Green Bank Observatory ’s (GBO’s)  20-meter diameter radio telescope  to measure the Galaxy’s  rotation curve  and mass distribution; currently archival data from GBO’s  40-foot diameter telescope  are used.  A ninth, capstone experience on  multi-messenger astronomy  has been proposed to NSF, in which students will use Skynet to collect comparison images to identify the optical counterpart to a gravitational-wave (GW) event, and then use the GW event as a standard siren, and a provided spectrum of the counterpart, to measure  Hubble’s Constant  (Skynet was the second of six groups to co- discover  the first optical counterpart to a GW event.)

OPIS! is a series of eight, interconnected labs that teach the evolution of our understanding of Earth’s place in the universe, and the cosmic distance ladder. Lab 6 makes use of what was learned in Lab 5 to teach the Great Debate. In Lab 7, students will use Skynet to collect 21-cm spectroscopy from Green Bank Observatory’s (GBO’s) 20-meter diameter radio telescope to measure the Galaxy’s rotation curve and mass distribution; currently archival data from GBO’s 40-foot diameter telescope are used.

A ninth, capstone experience on multi-messenger astronomy has been proposed to NSF, in which students will use Skynet to collect comparison images to identify the optical counterpart to a gravitational-wave (GW) event, and then use the GW event as a standard siren, and a provided spectrum of the counterpart, to measure Hubble’s Constant (Skynet was the second of six groups to co-discover the first optical counterpart to a GW event.)

The introduction of this curriculum at UNC-Chapel Hill ten years ago resulted in a >100% increase in enrollment over a five-year period – now one in five UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates take at least one of our introductory astronomy courses. It additionally contributed to an ≈300% increase in astronomy-track majors and minors (from ≈5/yr to ≈20/yr), and to our department being awarded two new tenure-track astronomy hires.

OPIS! has since been adopted by a dozen institutions, including large R1 institutions, smaller undergraduate-only institutions, community colleges, and advanced, college-preparatory high schools. And it is used in a variety of formats, including integrated into the classroom, as a separate/stand-alone laboratory experience, and fully online. Funded by a $250K NSF TUES award, OPIS! was the subject of a preliminary/exploratory study across ten of these institutions, and across all of these formats. The study found that once obvious factors, such as the grade that each student expected to receive, and their career plans, were controlled for, Skynet-based labs were one of only two course components that led to a statistically significant improvement in STEM attitudes. For example, traditional telescope labs, and non-telescope labs, as well as in-class activities known to yield learning gains, did not have a similar effect on attitudes.

Finally, OPIS! is designed to scale: Currently, OPIS! serves ≈1,125 students/yr, but we could serve tens of thousands per year without compromising professional operations.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s astronomy-track majors and minors recruitment and retention pyramid, which has resulted in an ≈300% increase in majors and minors since our introduction of OPIS! and ERIRA.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s astronomy-track majors and minors recruitment and retention pyramid, which has resulted in an ≈300% increase in majors and minors since our introduction of OPIS! and ERIRA.

Undergraduate and advanced high school

The Multi-Wavelength Universe! (MWU!)

Proposed (Not Yet Developed)

Where OPIS! is designed to complement survey courses in astronomy for non-majors, and to scale to thousands, and even tens of thousands, of students per year, and where this has proven effective in boosting enrollments and in convincing a fair fraction of these students to try their hand at a second course, is this also what is responsible for our ≈300% increase in astronomy-track majors and minors?  Or, is it the next-level set of observing experiences that (at least some of) these returning students have been doing at ERIRA? Would these numbers go up even more if these experiences could be incorporated into this second course, so everyone could do them? Perhaps OPIS! only gets more students through the door, and a next-level set of observing experiences, more specifically targeted at potential majors and minors, is necessary to “seal the deal”.

To address this, we propose to leverage some of the new capabilities of Afterglow 2.0 – specifically color combination of images taken at different wavelengths, whether optical or radio – and new single-dish radio capabilities that we have been developing, to develop a suite of next-level observing experiences that strongly reinforce the subject matter of such courses, which are typically on stars and galaxies. Where OPIS! is organized around the cosmic distance ladder, “The Multi-Wavelength Universe!”, or MWU!, will be organized around the many emission mechanisms that students encounter in such courses, and their physical origins.

Centaurus A :  PROMPT  image (left) and  GBO   20-meter   X-band  image (right). This capstone experience pairs regular field-of-view optical imaging with the 20-meter’s greater resolution (≈0.12°) in X band, to explore different facets of this unusual (and nearby/bright) object. Consisting of an elliptical galaxy that recently merged with a smaller spiral galaxy, the influx of new gas resulted in a burst of star formation. Students will image in  LRGB  (old and new stellar populations, dust lanes) and  H-alpha  (new star-forming regions), and in  HI  (cool gas) using the 20-meter in  L band . The elliptical also features a 55-million-solar-mass black hole, which is now active, producing galaxy-scale jets ( synchrotron  emission), which the 20-meter can (at least partially) resolve in X band.

Centaurus A: PROMPT image (left) and GBO 20-meter X-band image (right). This capstone experience pairs regular field-of-view optical imaging with the 20-meter’s greater resolution (≈0.12°) in X band, to explore different facets of this unusual (and nearby/bright) object. Consisting of an elliptical galaxy that recently merged with a smaller spiral galaxy, the influx of new gas resulted in a burst of star formation. Students will image in LRGB (old and new stellar populations, dust lanes) and H-alpha (new star-forming regions), and in HI (cool gas) using the 20-meter in L band. The elliptical also features a 55-million-solar-mass black hole, which is now active, producing galaxy-scale jets (synchrotron emission), which the 20-meter can (at least partially) resolve in X band.

Since next-level astronomy courses do not always have a separate lab component, we will design these experiences to work in either the lab or classroom setting. Most of them, particularly those with radio components, will be adapted from the inquiry-based experiences that we have been developing at ERIRA since 1992. And since these experiences will be for fewer students than OPIS! (potential majors and minors, vs. mostly non-majors), they can be designed to use more telescope time per student. This opens up new possibilities, such as color-combination of images and radio mapping, which OPIS! specifically avoids for this reason.

For MWU!, we have settled on three optical-only experiences, three radio-only experiences, and then two capstone experiences that integrate both optical and radio. Unlike OPIS!, in which most of the experiences build upon previous ones (organized around the cosmic distance ladder), instructors (and students) will be freer to pick and choose amongst these.

IDATA students and educators.

IDATA students and educators.

High School

Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy (IDATA)

Funded by a $2.5M NSF STEM+C Award

IDATA is bringing together blind and visually impaired (BVI) and sighted high school students and their teachers to create a fully accessible astronomy data request, retrieval, and analysis software tool. Students and teachers are collaborating with astronomy and computing science professionals, and educators and education researchers in the design and development of the software as well as learning modules and tutorials that help students explore the role of computation in astronomy. The project team utilizes user-centered design/universal design (UCD/UD) processes and the iterative method for the development and testing of software and the modules: improving access to our amazing universe for those with BVI related disabilities. Teachers and students who fully participate in IDATA are considered co-developers in the project, and their contribution will be recognized in the dissemination of IDATA final products.

IDATA student demonstrating Afterglow 2.0, also called “Afterglow Access”, for its accessibility features.

IDATA student demonstrating Afterglow 2.0, also called “Afterglow Access”, for its accessibility features.

IDATA is also working to advance knowledge and understanding of best practices in teaching and learning related to computation and computational thinking in astronomy and how participation influences students’ attitudes and beliefs about who can engage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and computing. The accessible software and instructional modules and tutorials produced by the project may be adopted by a range of BVI and sighted individuals, but may also be transferable to other similarly visually intensive domains such as satellite, geophysical, and medical imaging.

IDATA is a partnership between Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM (GLAS; formerly Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago), the STEM Education Evaluation Center (SEEC) of the Technical Education Research Centers (TERC), the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Logos Consulting Group, LLC.

Skynet’s role in IDATA is technical lead for the development of Afterglow 2.0. As part of Skynet Junior Scholars (see below) and now as part of IDATA, we have invested significant resources to ensure that both our technologies and these awards’ middle- and high-school curricula are accessible to BVI and deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) students. Consequently, Skynet and Afterglow 2.0 (also called “Afterglow Access” for this reason) are already compatible with standard screen readers used by BVI students. Furthermore, we have developed and integrated new, significant image-sonification capabilities into Afterglow 2.0.

Skynet Junior Scholars using  Afterglow 1.0 .

Skynet Junior Scholars using Afterglow 1.0.

Middle School and high school

Skynet Junior Scholars (SJS)

Funded by a $1.5M NSF ISE Award

SJS has been providing professional development to hundreds of 4-H leaders and other informal science educators, and engaging thousands of middle- and high-school youth in using research-grade robotic telescopes and data analysis tools to explore the universe. Youth participating in 4-H-based and other out-of-school programs in Wisconsin, West Virginia, and North Carolina have been learning about the universe and preparing for STEM careers by conducting authentic astronomy research, completing astronomy-related hands-on modeling activities, interacting with astronomers and other professionals who are part of the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network, and interacting with other youth who are part of the SJS virtual community.

SJS educators, training at Green Bank Observatory, in West Virginia.

SJS educators, training at Green Bank Observatory, in West Virginia.

The project is innovative because it is providing a diverse community of youth (including sight- and hearing-challenged youth and those from underrepresented groups) with opportunities to use high-quality, remotely located, Internet-controlled telescopes to explore the heavens by surveying galaxies, tracking asteroids, monitoring variable stars, and learning about the nature and methods of science. The SJS project provides:

  • online access to optical and radio telescopes, data analysis tools, and professional astronomers,

  • an age-appropriate web-based interface for controlling remote telescopes,

  • inquiry-based, standards-aligned instructional modules,

  • face-to-face and online professional development for 4-H leaders and informal science educators,

  • programming for youth in 4-H-based and other out-of-school clubs,

  • evaluation findings on the impacts of program activities on participants, and

  • research findings on how web-based interactions between youth and scientists can promote student interest in and preparedness for STEM careers.

SJS has been evaluating the effectiveness of program activities (1) in increasing youths' knowledge, skills, interest, self-efficacy, and identity in science, including youth who are sight- and hearing-impaired, (2) in increasing educators' competency in implementing inquiry-based instruction and their ability to interact with scientists, and (3) in increasing the number of Skynet scientists who are involved in education and public outreach.

SJS is a partnership between Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM (GLAS; formerly Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago), Green Bank Observatory, the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and 4-H. Skynet’s role in SJS was technical lead for the development of a new observing interface, one that could serve young students and seasoned professionals alike.

Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

High School

Observation-Based Student Experience in Research Via Exploration (OBSERVE)

Funded by a $50K NASA IDEAS Award

In partnership with Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, we developed a 127-page Skynet-based curriculum that meets North Carolina’s 9th-grade Earth and Environmental Sciences graduation requirements, and trained 75 high school teachers from across the state.  Thousands of students have now completed this curriculum, many of whom pursued, or are now pursuing, STEM majors in college.  Here are a few quotes from participating teachers and students:

I am so excited to have parents coming up and thanking me for doing all this.  Their kids are up late at night checking images, calling them into the room to see and IM-ing their friends to check out their images.  Parents are excited to see their children take such an interest in an academic topic.
— Ben Davis, Teacher, Albemarle High School, NC
I can’t thank you enough on behalf of Enloe’s astronomy classes for the amazing work your team has put  into the OBSERVE program.  I think Mr. Hicks choked up more than one time at the fact that high school students were scrambling to their computers the moment they woke up every morning to see how their images turned out.  (:
— Jessica Bodford, Student, Enloe High School, NC
One particular student of mine has a Behavior Improvement Plan.  He has difficulty relating to any of his teachers or classmates, or doing his class work.  But using Project: OBSERVE, finding the right galaxy, learning about what was visible in the Chilean night sky, how to enter jobs, how to manipulate his rough photos, sparked an interest that no one had seen in this young man before!
— Kathy Williams, Teacher, Scotland County Schools, NC