CARA Outreach - Yerkes Summer Institutes

Written by Jim Sweitzer after the 1993 YSI.


Super-Galactic Summer

What do paraffin wax, aluminum foil, rubber bands, a tiny flash light, and a tape measure have in common? You use them to measure the size of our Galaxy, of course! Well, maybe you can't do it, but the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica's (CARA) Space Explorers can. This summer the Center's high school students have participated in eight investigations in Chicago and spent a week at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin gauging the depths of the Galaxy. These thirty students are the core of CARA's outreach education program. In addition to their intense astronomical investigations, they teach younger students in the Chicago school system throughout the school year.

It does help to have the astronomical facilities and faculty of the University of Chicago and the Adler Planetarium at your disposal to make these measurements. Fortunately, the Center mode of operation makes this possible. During the first part of the summer, the Space Explorers attended three workshops at the Adler and even got to see a telescope in the Adler's collection that was made by William Herschel, history's first galactic astronomer. Mid-summer saw the students taking a series of physics and astronomy labs at the Kersten Physics Teaching Facility on campus. During these labs they investigated the basic physics of light and even used the Kersten's Dunham telescope.

By the time they made it to Yerkes, they were equipped with the physics background they needed and had already determined the distance and the wattage of the Sun. During the intense week at the observatory they completed eleven more "hands-on" investigations all relating to the Galaxy. A high point was using a flashlight and the knowledge gained from the earlier part of the summer to determine that the star Arcturus is thirty light years away. Using this star as a "standard candle," they then proceeded to gauge the distance of a distant cluster in the Galaxy. The week ended with a series of student run scientific seminars: for themselves, for their parents, and for some younger students (who will be the pool for future Space Explorers) visiting for the day.

The biggest payoff of all this work is the depth of understanding of science it gives the Space Explorers. They carry this on to all their own science classes and off to college. Also, since they have to teach and mentor grammar school students, this gives them the confidence they need to be effective science teachers. This year CARA's original group of Space Explorers graduated from high school. Two of them, who plan to become teachers, won Golden Apple Awards for their excellence in teaching. CARA likes to think that summers like this year's have helped make the difference.

Oh, in case you were wondering, the distance the Space Explorers found for the cluster M92 is 30,000 light years, only 10% off the published number. If you want to verify it for yourself, you can get the things you need at your local supermarket. It might help, however, if you had a Space Explorer show you how.