AAS 197, January 2001
Session 87. Innovations in Teaching Astronomy II
Joint Display, Wednesday, January 10, 2001, 9:30am-7:00pm, Exhibit Hall

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[87.08] Molecules in Space: A Chemistry lab using Radio Astronomy

M. J. Lekberg (Chelmsford High School), P. Pratap (MIT Haystack Observatory)

We present the results of a laboratory exercise developed with the support of the NSF Research Experiences for Teachers program at MIT Haystack Observatory. The exercise takes the students beyond the traditional test tubes of a chemistry laboratory into the interstellar medium, where the same principles that they study about in the classroom are found to hold. It also utilizes the true multi-disciplinary nature of radio astronomy and allows the students to realize how much can be learnt by studying the universe at various wavelengths.

The astronomical chemistry laboratory is presented wherein students from Chelmsford High School in Massachusetts operate the 37-m telescope at Haystack Observatory via the internet to observe radio signals from galactic chemicals. The laboratory is designed to be the means by which students witness physical evidence for molecular and orbital shapes by observing the radio emission from rotating dipoles. The laboratory described is a lynch pin activity for an integrated unit that moves from the valance shell electron configurations through molecular and orbital geometry to an understanding that many physical and chemical properties of chemicals are ultimately dependent upon the shape/geometry and consequently, dipole of the molecule. Students are expected to interpret and evaluate the nature of molecular dipoles and account for the diversity of rotational spectra using their conceptual knowledge of bonding orbital theory and their knowledge of the electronic atom. Flexibility in the lab allows students to identify individual chemicals by cross referencing radio emission from the galactic sources they have chosen against a prepared catalogue listing or by choosing to "listen" for specific chemicals at exact frequencies. A teacher resource manual containing information and data on a variety of daytime galactic source and individual chemical flux densities of molecular candidates has been prepared. Collaborative exercises and activities, and associated unit topics have also been developed.

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