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What are robotic telescopes?

Getting students to carry out their own science can give them a great sense of ownership and accomplishment
Two female students working on their laptops in a classroom, looking at the National School's Observatory website
© Royal Observatory Greenwich

Getting students to carry out their own science rather than working through a pre-designed investigation can give them a great sense of ownership and accomplishment.

Robotic telescopes are a fantastic way of giving students the opportunity to take their own images using professional grade telescopes. By planning observations and then interpreting and analysing their images, students can develop their ‘working scientifically’ skills.

Exploring, measuring and understanding

“It is well-known that astronomy creates a sense of excitement and wonder in most students. The National Schools’ Observatory (NSO) taps into that interest to explore science, mathematics and technology,” says Andy Newsam, Director of the National School’s Observatory.

“The NSO was originally set up to provide a way for pupils to take their own observations with the world’s largest fully-robotic telescope — the Liverpool Telescope in the Canary Islands — and for more than a decade it has been doing exactly that with nearly 200,000 observations requested by students of all ages.

“Alongside the observations,” continues Andy, “there is a wealth of support material, activities and specialist software which means that this is not just about nice images (though they can be beautiful) but about taking part in the science — not just looking, but exploring, measuring and understanding.”

‘Possible for everyone’

GCSE astronomy teacher Naomi has been involved in the NSO from the beginning, initially as the astronomer and software expert on the team, and then as the Director.

“It is something I am proud of and I have been very lucky over the years to work with many students, teachers and astronomers, and even artists, writers, actors and more, to make sure that the NSO has something for anyone and makes it possible for everyone, no matter how much experience or prior knowledge they have, to explore the universe for themselves,” she says.

“My GCSE astronomy students have greatly enjoyed using the National Schools’ Observatory as part of the observational component of their course. It has provided a fantastic opportunity for them to be able to access a two-metre class telescope at one of the world’s best observing sites.

“The robotic telescope is user-friendly, and the students have been excited to select their observing targets and receive the data from the telescope. Analysing the images is helping to enhance their science learning and understanding of the subject.”

© Royal Observatory Greenwich
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Physics, Astronomy, and Space: Teaching Secondary Science

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