Friday, April 25, 2014

NKAF Summer Space Camp in Vermont: Adventures in Science for Teenagers

In early August 2013, Northern Skies Observatory (NSO) was abuzz with activity during the Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation’s (NKAF) successful summer Space Camp. Attendance was limited to 10 high school and middle school students, and these slots filled quickly. Students ranged in age from 12 to 17, and, while most were from Vermont, they hosted one student from Toronto, Ontario and one from Eagle, Colorado.

Most of their days were spent learning various aspects of astronomy at NSO with observations of the sky at night. The nearby Green Mountain Retreat Center served as their dormitory and cafeteria. Students were treated to excellent meals provided by an NKAF docent from a local high school. There were three clear nights in a row to start the week, so students were able to make observations using portable telescopes outdoors and photograph celestial objects for further study using NSO’s main instrument, a 17 inch Planewave telescope with a CCD camera.

One student created a portfolio of detailed drawings of her observations at the eyepiece of NSO’s 12 inch Dobsonian. While they worked late into the night to take advantage of the clear, dark skies, there was ample energy for swimming at nearby Harvey’s Lake and for spontaneous and highly competitive fantasy card game tournaments.

Campers took a field trip to the nearby Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, where they were treated to an excellent private planetarium show. Another day they went to Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, where they met with Dr. Ryan Hickox and members of his research team and learned about their work with black holes and the evolution of galaxies. They also toured Dartmouth’s historic Shattuck Observatory which was built in 1854. Another big thrill for the students was lunch at the college cafeteria.

Campers also visited Stellafane, the national historic landmark in Springfield, VT where they toured the observatories and heard about the latest research into high resolution imaging of the Sun from Dr. Thomas Spirock of Big Bear Solar Observatory and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The week also featured presentations by John Briggs who runs the HUT Observatory in Colorado, Jamie Cross of WEIDMANN Systems International in St. Johnsbury, NKAF Secretary Dan Zucker, and NKAF President Bill Vinton of St. Johnsbury Academy. John Blackwell also gave an excellent presentation on photometry from Phillips Exeter Academy via Skype.

At the conclusion of the week campers created a detailed presentation to show their parents what they learned. They featured excellent photographs and drawings of celestial objects studied, as well as their research into these objects. Students and staff left tired at the end of the week but with full minds and big smiles.

NKAF is excited to announce their 2014 Space Camp at NSO from Friday evening, July 18th through Wednesday evening, July 23rd. This year’s camp is geared toward 14-18 year old students with an interest in astronomy, computers and image processing. The camp furthers NKAF’s mission of helping to improve science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) in schools and communities through inquiry-based learning. Emphasis will be on accomplishing individual and group study projects in which images and observational data will be obtained with use of the observatory’s instruments, building on last year’s camp experience.

The Green Mountain Retreat Center in Barnet will be used again for most meals and for overnights. It is a simple, clean facility that has a camp-like feel to it. There are separate sleeping areas for young men and women and a nice kitchen in which some mealtime responsibilities will be shared by everyone along with their Camp Director and an onsite female chaperon.

The cost of the 2014 camp is $750, and they will be able to expand to host 12 campers this year including at least one slot open for need based financial aid thanks to the generosity of a local community member. For more information and to obtain an application email NSO Director Damon Cawley at In addition to working with mentors and highly experienced astronomy observers to develop and present their projects, participants will again tour science institutions in Vermont including a field trip to the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich.

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