10 November 2022

Robotic Telescope Labs for Survey-Level Undergraduates

Daniel Reichart University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

For the past 13 years, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill has been developing a unique, survey-level astronomy curriculum, primarily for undergraduate students, with the goal of significantly boosting STEM enrollments on a national scale, as well as boosting students’ technical and research skills. Called “Our Place In Space!”, or OPIS!, this curriculum leverages “Skynet” — a global network of about two dozen fully automated or robotic professional-grade telescopes that we have deployed at some of the world’s best-observing sites. The curriculum has now been adopted by about 30 institutions, and we recently received $1.85 million from NSF's IUSE program to expand it nationwide, with funding for participating instructors. The curriculum works equally well online as in person.

Dan Reichart Picture 1
Figure 1. Left: Three of the six original 16"-diameter Skynet telescopes at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. Center: One of the three upgraded 24"-diameter telescopes at CTIO (displaced originals have been relocated to other dark sites around the world). Right: Skynet’s 20m-diameter radio telescope at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. Image credit: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill / Green Bank Observatory

Funded primarily by NSF, UNC-Chapel Hill began building Skynet in 2004. Skynet is a sophisticated telescope control and queue scheduling software and provides the capacity to be a novel educational technology. The Skynet Robotic Telescope Network has grown to about 20 telescopes, with another 10 scheduled for integration over the next few years. Skynet optical telescopes range in size from 14" to 32" and span four continents and five countries. Skynet also includes a 20m-diameter radio telescope (see Figure 1), with plans to integrate more. To date, roughly 40,000 students have used Skynet.

OPIS! is a Skynet-based laboratory curriculum for undergraduates in small to very large introductory survey courses. OPIS! consists of eight, and soon nine, labs where students use the same research instrumentation as professionals to collect their own data. They then use this self-collected data (astronomical images and spectra) to reproduce some of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the past 400 years and gain technical and research skills at the same time. Although students are not carrying out cutting-edge research, they are using cutting-edge research instrumentation, and consequently, there is great overlap with the Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) pathway model. And these labs/observing experiences are specifically designed to pair with standard introductory astronomy curricula, facilitating widespread adoption.

OPIS! is built around the cosmic distance ladder, which serves as an organizing principle in most introductory astronomy courses/sequences, and as such, it reinforces students’ classroom experiences. The goal of OPIS! is to move beyond laboratory experiences in which students learn how to use a telescope for its own sake, to instead use them to do science, and furthermore, to do the same science that they are learning in class.

The introduction of this curriculum at UNC-Chapel Hill 13 years ago resulted in a >100% increase in enrollment over a five-year period — now one in six UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates take at least one of our introductory astronomy courses. It additionally contributed to an approximately 300% increase in astronomy-track majors and minors (from 10 to 40). OPIS! has since been adopted by about 30 institutions, including large R1 institutions, smaller undergraduate-only institutions, minority-serving institutions, rural-serving institutions, community colleges, and advanced, college-preparatory high schools. And it is used in a variety of formats, including integration into the classroom, as a separate/stand-alone laboratory experience, and fully online.

A recent addition to the curriculum is 65 overview and tutorial videos, which are embedded in the labs but are also available online. They are currently garnering around 500 views per day and 30 hours viewed per day on YouTube. They can be used in multiple ways. For some instructors, they are helpful supplements that students can consult when completing labs. Others use them as the primary mode of lab instruction, freeing themselves up to focus more, and more time, on lecture/regular instruction, and on working with students one-on-one as they need it.

OPIS! works equally well online as in person. Indeed, UNC-Chapel Hill has offered both in-person and online sections of OPIS! every year for the past decade. And when the pandemic struck in Spring 2020, OPIS! sections, at about two dozen institutions, were among the few science lab courses at these institutions that were able to transition to fully online without difficulty.

Given this, we have partnered with homework-assessment company Cengage/WebAssign, which has packaged the OPIS! labs into an interactive, and maximally auto-graded, online manual/text. Most participating institutions choose this product, both for its ease of use and because it greatly simplifies grading, particularly large numbers of students. It has an ISBN number and can be ordered by campus bookstores the same as any textbook (allowing students to use financial aid money instead of personal funds), and it now integrates into standard learning management systems.

Cengage/WebAssign charges for this product (typically $65/student), but a portion of this cost is returned to UNC-Chapel Hill to support telescope operations and maintenance, software maintenance and further development, etc. This gives OPIS! a long-term sustainability model that has allowed it to survive grant funding cycles. (Currently, Skynet costs $350K/year to operate.) Simultaneously, it gives students unique access to research-grade equipment at some of the best and darkest sites around the world.

Each fall, we offer weekly Zoom training sessions for adopting instructors, where we review one lab per week. We also record these sessions for instructors with time conflicts, and for instructors adopting off-semester. Each spring, we offer weekly Zoom sessions for instructors who have already implemented OPIS! at their institution. Here, we review updates to the curriculum and to the supporting software and collect detailed feedback so we can continue to improve the labs.

Funded by our NSF IUSE award, we have up to $3,500 for at least 35 adopting instructors to learn and implement the curriculum at their institutions. This includes attending one semester of training sessions, one semester of feedback sessions, and administering two pre/post surveys to your students over the course of the five-year award. One survey measures student attitudes, self-efficacy, and career intentions. The other measures content knowledge. The end result will likely be the largest study of the positive impacts of robotic-telescope use in education ever conducted, at least at the undergraduate level. 

For additional information about OPIS! and implementing it at your institution, you can watch this YouTube video, check out the resources online, and/or email [email protected].