Building “Telescope Dexterity” in New Astronomers

Twenty three years in the classroom as either a teacher or an assistant principal have allowed me to demonstrate my skills as an educator and pay well over a thousand visits to other teachers in their classroom. Over time I have been blessed to pick up on the ideas and techniques of others and use them to enhance my own practices. In the Fall of 2015, I was finally able to take everything that I have learned over the years, from my own professional development and by watching others, and begin teaching a year long course in high school level Astronomy.

Right from the start of the school year I was teaching students what to look for in the sky, constellations, how to use sky charts, etc… and, most of all, how to use telescopes to find these objects. My timing was perfect, as these lessons took us to the beginning of November each year – exactly when the clocks would “fall back” and give us more darkness after school to go observing in Fort Greene Park. While I have lessons planned for the entire year, there are a few in this time frame that stick out and they are the ones that involved telescopes. The reaction of my students when they worked with telescopes always seemed to give me that satisfaction that comes with getting the students to “touch, do, and feel science”.

My first favorite lesson was to provide the students with the cheapest, ugliest, downright garbage telescopes that I could find through Shop DOE on FAMIS, the purchasing system through the New York City Department of Education. Knowing that the telescopes on FAMIS are cheap and basic, I won’t be overly annoyed should something happen to the equipment. I’m proud that my students handled everything with care and did not leave fingerprints on any of the optics. When the telescopes arrived in my office, I took the instructions out of the box and left those instructions in my office. This first lesson on telescopes featured my students having to take the materials out of the box, assemble the telescopes, and zoom in on any screw located on the doors down the hallway. From there the students had to report back to me which type of screwdriver would be needed to remove that screw from the door down the hallway. While I sent them scrambling to work as a team, using a picture on the telescope’s box as the only guidance, everyone was able to reach the goal of the lesson.

My next favorite telescope lesson was to set up five telescopes in the hallway outside of my office. The set up featured a six inch refractor, a sixteen inch Dobsonian, an eight inch Schmidt Cassegrain, a sixty millimeter solar telescope, and a five inch reflector. Any astronomer would be quick to give a lecture and run down of how each works and what each telescope can do. I preferred not to sound like a used car salesman or that “crazy” guy on TV from the 1980’s who was having a Christmas sale on electronics in the month of August. Instead, having complete faith in my students, I let the students compare and contrast between the models and I let them come up with as to what is different and ideas as to what the key features were for each one. Things that the students took note of were the differences in the bases/tripods, where the mirrors were located, the lack of mirrors in some cases, telescopes that allow for solar viewing and those that were not, etc. By the end of the day terms such as focal length, aperture, and f/ratio were all common knowledge. Most of all, the amount of work done by my students was far greater than anything that I had to do in those forty six minutes.

The last lesson that I loved was when I placed a variety of telescope accessories throughout the tables in the classroom. The students worked in teams and did a walkthrough of the room, examining the accessories one piece at a time. They had the chance to look at colored filters, polarizing filters, camera adapters, power sources, star diagonals, binoculars, Barlow lenses, etc. My favorite part was when the students came up with their hypotheses about what each accessory does and then they argued it out in the classroom. If there was an impasse or stalemate, I stepped in to provide more information. But once again, it was that “touch, do, and feel” of the accessories that provided an experience that can one cannot provide with a presentation involving slides and pictures. The result of all of this? Come to any of the star parties in Floyd Bennett Field, Great Kills, or Fort Greene Park and see my students handle all of my own equipment without me having any concern for damage or misuse. Also featured is their enthusiasm that has built up from their hands on experiences in the classroom. From years as a hockey coach in addition to my experiences in the classroom I have learned that, “What you see is what you coached.” So true!

On a final note, no good lesson goes without giving a meaningful homework assignment. The question I faced was, “How do I bring these three experiences together?” So I thought about what it is that makes us astronomers happy and the answer wasn’t far way – shopping for the good stuff! I allowed the students a budget of three thousand “pretend” dollars and had them put together a telescope and accessory package that they felt suited them best. With each item that the students chose for their package, they had to provide a rationale for their choice and give reasons as to why these particular products were appealing to have in their packages. Giving them two weeks to carefully plan their packages, the students were able to complete the assignment and have something ready just in case they should be able to obtain the finances to make telescope and/or accessory purchases. Most of all, they have given thought to what is available and what they can do with it so that they are not buying accessories or telescopes on a whim and wasting their money on mediocre products. In fact, to this day, my students always remember my joking around about that they would instantly fail my class if I should ever find out that they bought a telescope in a toy store. It is just so much easier to show new astronomers how to make educated decisions right from the start.

Thomas Evangelist is the Assistant Principal of Physics Sciences at Brooklyn Technical High School. If you would like to reach out to him please contact him via email: [email protected]