Video by Sara Kovach
The dedication of the new observatory atop the Anderson Parking Facility Tuesday initiated new advances in both the science and educational programs at St. Thomas.
“The primary mission of the St. Thomas physics department observatory is science education,” physics professor Gerry Ruch said. “We want to use this facility to reach as many people as we possibly can and get them excited about science and the natural world.”
Collaboration between departments and the community
The use of the observatory is not exclusive to students involved in science programs.
“[The physics department] is going to partner with the school of education,” Ruch said.
Students will take an astronomy class and a specialized lab where they will “learn how to use the telescope and they [will] develop some of their own curriculum that they’re going to take with them when they leave [St. Thomas],” he said. “That curriculum is tied directly to this facility.”
Students anticipate using the observatory in the near future.
“I think [the observatory] is a wonderful addition,” freshman Madeline Kapler said. “I’m very lucky … to be able to use it all four years and I definitely plan on coming [to the observatory] often.”
The observatory will also be available to teachers from high schools in the area.
“Local high school teachers can come [to the observatory] for a summer teacher training program, learn how to use [the telescope], [develop] a curriculum … and use the facility to teach a unit on astronomy in the classroom,” Ruch said.
From humble beginnings to high tech results
“We started with a modest shed and we ended up with a gorgeous building and this high powered telescope,” the Rev. Dennis Dease, university president, said.
The St. Thomas observatory is modeled after the W. M. Keck observatory in Hawaii, which houses the world’s largest telescopes. Similar to the Keck observatory, the Planewave CDK-17 telescope and dome in the St. Thomas observatory are operated remotely by computer. The physics department hopes to eventually have computer access to the telescope from any location.
“[Operating the telescope remotely] opens up access to a huge audience,” Ruch said.
Students are looking forward to the scientific learning experiences the observatory will bring to the university.
“I think it’s perfect,” junior Jack Dowd said. “If we’re going to build a big parking center … we might as well put as much as we can on it. The fact that we’re advancing in the sciences is just [evidence of] how great St. Thomas is.”
Physics department chair Martin Johnston has been interested in installing an observatory for a while.
“As [I would walk] around this wonderful campus, every building I looked at was a potential observatory,” he said. “How could we not do this? We teach 200 students a year … there are a lot of students going through our astronomy courses. They have this beautiful facility, wonderful labs [but] they never [had the opportunity to] get outside.”
Observation in the future
Even though the observatory has been dedicated, it is not entirely open for students to use. Right now, students are able to use the observatory with professor supervision, but hopefully students will be trained and be able to use it alone, Ruch said.
“We’re about a year from being completely operational,” he said. “In the next six months or so we’re going to have two or three community [events] where we invite people to come up [and use the telescope]. Eventually we … want to train [St. Thomas] physics students to use it … [to] get observational projects done.”
Even though the observatory is not currently open to the public, Ruch anticipates great community involvement.
“We don’t want this thing to be locked up,” he said. “We want everybody to have access.”
And the observatory will bring positive experiences to students, faculty and the community.
“I share the excitement of our physics faculty and students,” Dease said. “This new telescope will provide hands-on experience for our students and they’ll be able to work with real data rather than computerized data. [The observatory] will also be available to our community outreach programs, so it’s really going to be a wonderful learning experience for a lot of people.”
Rebecca Omastiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org