Hands-on learning about space

The Rothney Observatory, UCalgary’s unique astrophysical facility, offers local schools the chance to explore astronomy, optics and technology first-hand.

By Susan Cannon
October 2015

When October gets underway and the school year is in full swing, it’s not uncommon to see yellow buses dropping off schoolchildren at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory (RAO), south of Calgary. 

The RAO is a principal teaching and research facility operated by the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the University of Calgary's 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, the RAO’s education specialist, develops and delivers 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. Howse, with help from graduate students in the department, develops 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.

“It’s a lot of fun to get out from behind a computer and work with these school groups."

“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.”



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