How Would Your Students Like to Operate a Telescope?

There is a big push right now for students to do authentic science research that has real world applications. I, personally, cannot think of a more authentic way to involve students in citizen science than having them operate an Earth-based radio telescope looking out into space or request images of Earth be produced by a telescopic digital camera on the International Space Station.

Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) Program

The GAVRT program is a partnership between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Lewis Center for Educational Research designed to allow authentic science investigations by students and educators in grades K through 12. The program allows students to gain first-hand experience in being part of a science team and gives them a chance to make real contributions to scientific knowledge by giving them control of a 34-meter decommissioned NASA radio antenna. Students may collect data on strong radio sources and collaborate with professional radio astronomers to analyze the data.

Before students may gain control of the scope, their teachers must undergo a training program in telescope operations, scheduling and radio astronomy either on-site trainings scheduled periodically at multiple locations (information here or via the internet (information here Once trained, teachers lead their students through the process of joining and contributing to one of the campaigns in progress. On the site, listed campaigns include Jupiter Quest, Black Hole Patrol and SETI. At the time of this article, the only campaign showing information is SETI. For those of you unfamiliar with the acronym SETI, let me spell it out for you. SETI is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence and involves identifying candidate signals, which might not be natural occurrences. As described by the GAVRT lead scientist, students will: choose a piece of the sky to search; run the radio telescope to collect new data; and use custom-made waterfall plots to reject interference signals and identify candidate signals, potentially of extra-terrestrial design. To assist with this project, there are videos and lessons on waterfall plots, chances of seeing a signal, appropriate wavelengths of light to use for a search and choosing parts of the sky to survey.

Sally Ride Earth Kam

Sally Ride Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students (Earth KAM) gives classes a chance to request images taken from the International Space Station using a computer-controlled, digital camera. During periodic missions, middle school students around the world may request images of specific locations on Earth and use those images to perform scientific investigations. All images taken are available in a searchable archive and have accompanying activities to engage students in Earth and Space Science, Geography, Mathematics, Communications, Art and Social Studies.

In order to participate, teachers must register and be approved for an account. Once approved, they may sign up for any mission. During a mission, the teacher and students target locations from the mission area and request specific images from the targeted areas. Requests are uplinked to the control computer aboard the International Space Station from the Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama and the images are sent via downlink back to the MOC to be distributed to requesting schools. In addition to using the requested images, multiple activities are offered at the Sally Ride Earth KAM site ( Among the activity topics are; Getting to know Earth, Earth’s Rotation and Orbit; Our Place in the Solar System; What We Have Explored So Far; The Story of Earth KAM, and Interpreting Earth KAM images.

As you continue to give your students a chance to participate in citizen science, these two programs afford free and engaging options. In both cases, you have opportunities to go cross-curricular with language arts and social studies with lessons and reporting.

John Weis
Educator Professional Development Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center