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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, April 4, 2005

Telescope taking school club on star trek

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

PUKALANI, Maui — When Kamehameha Schools Maui math teacher Jean Hamai saw her first live computer images from the Faulkes Telescope North atop Haleakala, she couldn't contain herself.

The Faulkes Telescope North at Haleakala will be controlled by astronomy club students from Kamehameha Schools Maui as part of a project seeking to boost enthusiasm for science in schools.

UH Institute for Astronomy

"I just let out a scream," Hamai said, recalling the globular clusters, planetary nebulae and distant galaxies she and fellow teacher Len Bloch saw during their successful Faulkes test-run one recent evening.

That's the same kind of excitement, weather permitting, the teachers hope to generate in the young members of the school's new astronomy club when they meet on campus tonight.

If everything goes to plan, the club will control the telescope atop Haleakala from a computer in the classroom while watching it on a Web camera, and then download "real-time" images of far-away celestial phenomena.

The event is exactly what was envisioned by Martin "Dill" Faulkes, the British entrepreneur whose educational trust financed most of the construction of a pair of research-class telescopes — one on Maui and one in Australia. It was Faulkes' vision to ignite in British schoolchildren a renewed enthusiasm for science by bringing the thrill of astronomy into the classroom.

The University of Hawai'i contributed in-kind services worth $1 million to help develop the $10 million telescope, in exchange for giving Hawai'i's students the right to use it.

While the UH Institute for Astronomy has been moving cautiously to open the project up to Hawai'i users, scores of schools, colleges and other groups in the United Kingdom already have been using the 2-meter telescope as a window to the cosmos. Bolstered by ample grant financing, the United Kingdom has an entire team helping to bring the science of the telescope into schools.

Mike Maberry, the institute's deputy director, said there's much more opportunity for classrooms in the United Kingdom to use the telescope, given the time difference. When it's night here, it's daytime there and students are in the classroom.

The fully robotic, state-of-the-art telescope still has plenty of bugs to work out, Maberry said, and local officials are hoping to take advantage of the groundwork being done by their U.K. colleagues.

"We want to be careful and not push it too quickly," he said. "If it's not real easy and friendly to use, people might blow it off. We don't want to see a great splash and then a fizzle."

Maberry and Faulkes Telescope North administrator Bill Giebink said there's a need to develop lesson plans that meet public school guidelines and are easy to use. They said there's also the challenge of gaining influence in a state Department of Education science curriculum dominated by biology studies.

So far, the Institute for Astronomy has been nurturing the development of a handful of teachers in its TOPS (Toward Other Planetary Systems) workshop program. The plan is for these teachers to lead and create the kind of momentum that will inspire their colleagues.

But with little support to date, even the most willing teachers have been reporting difficulty getting images from the telescope. There are only a couple of hours in the early evening reserved for real-time observations in Hawai'i, and weather can be an obstacle. The telescope's clamshell enclosure closes automatically if sensors determine that wind or rain are threatening the instrument.

Maberry acknowledged that most of the observations in Hawai'i will be done offline. In offline mode, users request observations and then are notified by e-mail that their pictures are ready and accessible on the Web. Maberry said this is a common practice by professional astronomers using telescopes everywhere.

Hamai hopes the weather cooperates for today's astronomy club viewing. Club members have been told to bring the coordinates of some far-away corner of the universe they want to observe.

"If I can get them all charged up and excited about seeing a star cluster or a planetary nebula, maybe it will inspire them to explore even further," she said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.