Apr. 17, 1998 CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina public school students soon will SOAR to great heights in science, thanks to a new program that allows them to use the Morehead Observatory telescope at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and eventually, may give them access to the SOAR telescope now under development in Chile.
The UNC-CH physics and astronomy department has kicked off a new program called SOLAR, which stands for Students Online As Researchers. SOLAR will allow North Carolina public school teachers and students to use and remotely control the telescope at Morehead Observatory via their computers in the classrooms and the Internet.
Dr. Wayne Christiansen, director of the Morehead Observatory, said SOLAR offers students access to the universe. "From Edenton, a student can take the computer mouse, point it to a planet and click, and the telescope will take off and point at that planet," he said. "They will actually control the camera to get their own images of the universe."
An inaugural group of 18 public school teachers from Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Denver, Edenton, Lewisville, Newton, Pittsboro and Raleigh will come to Chapel Hill April 24-26 to train on SOLAR equipment and discuss incorporating the program into their science curricula.
One of those teachers is Kimberly L. Willoughby, an earth and environmental science teacher at Southeast Raleigh High School Center for Accelerated Studies in Wake County, a magnet school that uses technology and innovative teaching and learning to prepare students for the 21st century.
"The SOLAR project offers just that: technology to gather real scientific data," she said. "Students and teachers will actually be able to capture an image of the Sun without hurting their eyes. I believe the SOLAR project will add to the lifelong interest of science for all my students."
UNC-CH Chancellor Michael Hooker gave $80,000 to SOLAR from his academic enhancement funds. Hooker designated that those funds, appropriated by the N.C. General Assembly, be used for technology improvement projects and Internet-based distance-learning courses. The grant paid to upgrade the Morehead telescope so that it could be operated by remote control.
SOLAR also got a $30,000 Eisenhower grant from the National Science Foundation and $15,000 from NASA.
The SOLAR program will encourage students from different schools to collaborate on science projects via the Internet by sharing their images with each other.
Students who complete the SOLAR program will have an opportunity to move on toward more complicated science projects -- such as using the Morehead telescope at night, or submitting study proposals for astronomers to conduct using the new SOAR telescope in Chile, Christiansen said.
SOAR, the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research, is a state-of-the-art, lightweight, computer-controlled, 4-meter telescope that will sit atop Cerro Pachon, a 9,000-foot mountain in Chile's northern Andes. The $28-million research facility is being funded by four partners: UNC-CH, Michigan State University, the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) and the country of Brazil. Construction should be completed by 2001.
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