“Hands-On Universe: Teaching Astronomy with Java-Based Image Processing Tools” by Refling and Pennypacker

  • ©John Refling and Carl Pennypacker




    Hands-On Universe: Teaching Astronomy with Java-Based Image Processing Tools



    The goal of the Hands-On Universe Project is to teach observational astronomy and related science concepts within a collaborative and stimulating learning environment. This environment is enhanced by appropriate software tools and professionally produced curricula. The software tools consist of Web-based image processing, visualization, and computer graphics programs that provide various forms of image enhancement, qualitative and quantitative data extraction, and analysis functions.
    The project goes beyond the traditional static classroom approach to teaching by providing a networked environment in which students interact with other students around the world. They can have their questions answered by professional astronomers and scientists who are participating in the project. They can also participate in collaborative research with other institutions.
    A key feature of this project is the use of networked, automated, research-quality telescopes. Via the Internet, participating students can make personal requests for a telescope to take an image of a particular feature in the sky. The students’ request for images is the first important step in their subsequent application of the computer image processing tools and astronomy fundamentals. This step is crucial, as it provides a sense of ownership of the image, which in turn increases the students’ interest and motivation in performing scientific investigations on the image. Since each image is unique, and since the universe is changing over time, there is a possibility that the image contains astronomical features that have never been viewed before, even by well-funded research institutions. This potential for discovery also enhances the students’ interest in learning and participating in the project.
    In addition to the networked research-grade telescopes, the underlying technology consists of remote and local file servers that provide archived data and number- crunching capability in response to interactive requests from the participant, and Java-based graphics terminals that provide an interactive visual interface between the user and the rest of the system via the World Wide Web.
    The main focus of this Electronic Schoolhouse workshop is to examine the project’s Web-based image processing tools, which visually manipulate and analyze astronomical images, and to explore the curricula that accompany the software. Specific subjects include: CCD camera fundamentals, image enhancement, visualization and extraction of measurements from the image (for example, measuring feature sizes on the Moon), exploring photometry, correlating orbits of objects with their visual images and the underlying orbital mechanics principles, and studying changes in objects in the sky.
    In the most compelling demonstration of the project, the workshop demonstrates how students in rural America were able to use the software to detect a minute change in images of the sky over time, leading to their discovery of a supernova. They are currently collaborating in a search for comets.

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