To Infinity and Beyond: Conquering Hands-On Science Projects

Even for educators who were early adopters of technology, the shift to online learning required new tools and teaching strategies for remote learning. Hands-on science experiments were particularly challenging. For Christine Hirst Bernhardt, Astronomy Professor at the College of the Canyons, NASA Endeavor STEM Teaching Project, and Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator for the U.S. Department of Energy, that meant wanting to ensure that her students were still able to engage in interactive hands-on observations and analysis for the study of space.

Bernhardt is a skilled STEM instructor with years of teaching experience at the middle school, high school, and college level. She was an early adopter of probe ware and other data tools that allowed students to move beyond just collecting and recording data to critical thinking and analysis. During the pandemic, it was no longer possible to bring students to the campus parking lot to look through actual telescopes and she searched for something to replace that experience. “When students see craters, rings, and moons, there is such a personal, emotional reaction to looking through a telescope,” she said. “It’s awe-inspiring, and the realization that we live on one tiny planet in this vast universe brings up all those important questions, such as ‘why am I here? and what is my purpose?’”

Online links to professional telescopes in real time

Fortunately, just as the pandemic was beginning, Bernhardt was able to connect to a network of professional-grade online telescopes located in the Canary Islands and Chile. Classes can book time on a telescope to view a specific space object or event or join other classes that have reserved time to view an event. Using online telescopes has expanded the opportunities to learn about astronomy, creating greater access for more students to participate and inspiring students to a deeper learning experience. “My students are actively designing their own projects—designing research questions and testing those questions—just like professional astronomers when they capture their own photos and data,” said Bernhardt.

“When we shifted to remote learning, Slooh was the solution I had long sought,” she said. “It allowed my students to observe incredible and inspiring imagery on a far greater scale than they could while sharing an eyepiece in a parking lot.” Even though the telescopes were linked online, students still had to deal with technology glitches, weather delays, and waiting in a worldwide queue to use the telescope in real time just like professional scientists.

Slooh is making access to observatories equitable in education, levelling the playing field for future vocational opportunities in the growing space industry. It’s an exciting time to be studying in the field. Astronomy is changing every day. 25-45% of Bernhardt’s students go on for additional studies in astronomy or careers in astronomy, astrophysics, space science teaching, aerospace engineering, and computer science.

“Students were so on edge during remote instruction that it was critical for me to engage them and be transparent about my expectations,” said Bernhardt. She used many technology applications to engage students and monitor their participation in order to make class as interactive as possible. These tools allowed students to engage with the content and each other.

Learning from the pandemic experience

Bernhardt is one of the educators who view the pandemic as a catalyst and opportunity to create something new and more exciting in higher education. She wants to blend the best of traditional higher education with some of the engaging online technologies she discovered during the pandemic. She and her colleagues are talking about re-imagining how to take the best of both instead of returning to a system that only worked for some students.

In addition to creating greater equity of access to space science, “the ability to bring the universe into the classroom through Slooh leverages students’ natural curiosity and allows them a launch point for greater and deeper learning,” said Bernhardt. “The gift of online and remote learning is the capacity to do it anytime, anywhere.”