SKYNET AND SKYNET JUNIOR SCHOLARS: FIRST THE TELESCOPES, THEN THE EDUCATION
Several years ago, the University of North Carolina built several robotic telescopes in Chile whose primary purpose is to observe the light emitted by gigant ic explos ions in the universe. These explosions are called Gamma Ray Bursts, and they are typically seen first by space telescopes that can detect gamma rays. Since these GRB's don't happen all the time, there is considerable telescope time left over, and, since UNC created internet-based controls for the telescopes, it was an easy stretch to start using them in undergraduate astronomy classes and with high school teachers and students. The students liked it, a lot!
Since the telescopes in Chile are robotic, it was also not too big a stretch for UNC to allow other telescopes to join the network. That's how Skynet has grown to include the Yerkes 41 inch telescope and the Green Bank 20 meter radio telescope, among others. People who belong to Skynet can request data, not just images, from any of the telescopes on the network that have donated the use of their telescopes.
On the education front, Vivian Hoette and Sue Ann Heatherly had wanted to do an educational project together for a long time. Vivian and Sue Ann have made observational astronomy happen for thousands of youth, pioneering the use of remote telescopes with kids through programs like "Hands On Universe" and many others. Through these experiences, they both realized that astronomy is a "gateway" science and that the online tools available to kids, from requesting data from telescopes to displaying and analyzing data to sharing results, could be improved. So, they teamed up with the Skynet folks at UNC and the Education experts at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific to create "Skynet Junior Scholars". After a proposal was submitted to the National Science Foundation three different times, SJS was finally funded last year.
A group of 35 informal educators and teachers, including myself, from around the country recently completed a six week online workshop preparing us to use the SJS resources with our students. The specific groups will vary widely, from 4H clubs to after school enrichment programs (my own situation) to summer camps and classes. We can't wait to get started.