Triad Children Observe Universe Through HPU Service Learning Course

HPU students were trained on robotic telescopes and taught community children how to operate the telescopes virtually. Millie Grobe is a 6-year-old participant in High Point University’s LASeR program, which is supported by Dr. Brad Barlow, director of the Culp planetarium and associate professor of astrophysics.


HIGH POINT, N.C., Nov. 30, 2020 – Children in the Triad region had their eyes to the sky through telescopes thanks to a new service learning course taught by Dr. Brad Barlow, director of the Culp planetarium and associate professor of astrophysics in High Point University’s Wanek School of Natural Sciences.

This fall semester, Barlow taught his general education astronomy class as a service learning course for his students. HPU offers more than two dozen service learning courses per year, where students commit at least 25 hours of service during the semester.

Students in Barlow’s class took part in a project called LASeR (Learning Astronomy through Service and Research), which is supported in part by Barlow’s National Science Foundation grant.

As part of the laboratory component of the course, students learned how to operate and observe with the robotic Skynet telescopes. These professional, research-grade telescopes can be controlled from a simple web interface and are located all around the world, including locations in Chile, Australia, North Carolina and Canada. In the class, students used them to conduct simple lab exercises like measuring the mass of Jupiter and observing the phases of Venus.

“Our class had so much fun carrying out LASeR this semester, and the program was tremendously successful,” said Barlow. “It’s amazing how quickly these kids, some as young as 6 years old, picked up the technical details involved in using our robotic telescopes.”

Once the HPU students were trained on Skynet, they were each assigned to work with a different Big/Little pair at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Piedmont. Using funds from Barlow’s NSF grant, the class purchased Skynet observing time for each participating Little and their Big. HPU students met virtually with their assigned Big/Little once per week and taught them how to operate and observe with the Skynet telescopes from the comfort of their homes.

“Big Brothers Big Sisters is extremely grateful for the opportunity we were given to have some of our Bigs and Littles participate in the LASeR astronomy project,” said Adriana Hernandez, lead match support specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters. “A lot of children were amazed on how they could access different telescopes around the world and be able to take pictures of planets, nebulas, galaxies and the moon. During these difficult times, having this project was a blessing to these children. It allowed them to spend time with their Big while learning more about the universe.”

Trevor Hansen, an HPU student and volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, worked with Jeremy Umanzor throughout the program.

HPU partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Piedmont for the LASeR program. HPU students trained their Littles to use telescopes from around the world to take photos of the moon, pictured here, planets and other elements of the universe.

“Jeremy has been an absolute joy to teach,” said Hansen. “His enthusiasm to learn is both encouraging and inspiring. He has taken some spectacular images with the telescopes. Dr. Barlow’s program has been a success as it has created an interest in science for Jeremy, and many other children through Big Brothers Big Sisters. Not only has Dr. Barlow been a great mentor to me, but he has generously allotted more observing time to both Jeremy and I so we can continue observing more stars, galaxies and global clusters.”

The class presented their Littles with nine different observing challenges for which they could earn “badges.” Challenges include imaging all of the planets that are currently visible (“Planet Badge”), creating true-color images of galaxies and nebulae (“Astrophotography Badge”) and turning images into sound and music (“Sonification Badge”).

“My son, Zach, has loved earning his badges and having the virtual meetings each week with Matt and Cody,” said Elisabeth Hill, Zach’s mom. “He has loved learning about nebulas, galaxies and planets with the telescopes. He also enjoys taking the photos, labeling and editing them.”

“It was incredibly fulfilling to witness the ways in which students bonded with members of our community through a shared love of the universe and the aesthetic beauty it provides,” said Barlow. “In such a challenging semester to so many people, the program brought joy to me and my students, and we hope it provided some level of inspiration to kids in the Triad.”

The inaugural LASeR program is finishing this week, but Barlow expects to run the program again in the fall 2021 semester.

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