“The NSO is a truly wonderful resource which is so much more than just a sophisticated eye to the universe. Just as importantly, it gives us a powerful platform from which to proceed with inspiring students in science through astronomy” (Science teacher)
What is the National Schools’ Observatory?
Astronomy is considered one of the most inspiring areas of the science curriculum. As Osbourne and Collins concluded in their study of attitudes to science in school “The one topic (amongst the sciences) that generated universal enthusiasm was any study of astronomy” (Osbourne and Collins, 2000). The very aspects of astronomy that inspire and enthuse - the fundamental questions, the ongoing struggle to find answers - are the very things that make it a scientific activity, so if that step can be made, astronomy provides a very powerful tool to promote a better appreciation of science as a whole.
The National Schools' Observatory (NSO – www.schoolsobservatory.org.uk) was set up to exploit that opportunity by allowing pupils to work alongside professional astronomers on a world-leading research telescope – the £5 million Liverpool Telescope (LT – http://telescope.livjm.ac.uk), which is owned and operated by Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). One of the world's largest fully-robotic telescopes, it is sited not in Liverpool, of course, but on La Palma in the Canary Islands on one of the best observing sites in the world. With a 2-metre diameter primary mirror and a comprehensive suite of instruments it is used by professional astronomers all over the world.
The LT works by collecting "Observing Programmes" from professional astronomers, and computer systems at the telescope build an observing schedule in real-time, without human involvement. Able to react to sudden events such as supernovae, optimise observations to the current weather and even analyse its own data, the scheduling system is not only much more efficient than a human operator, it can carry out observations that no other telescope could manage and so lead to some very exciting new science. The NSO is designed to let school students and teachers do exactly the same thing - create Observing Programmes that are scheduled alongside those of the professionals and then study the results, not just as pictures, but scientific data to be measured and experimented on.
In order for this unique resource to have the maximum impact, it is important that the NSO reaches schools without a strong reputation in science and teachers without a background in astronomy or physics. Therefore, not only is it free to all schools in the UK, but it is very easy to get involved. A specially designed “Go Observing” web tool guides pupils to their choice of observation and easy-to-use software allows them to process their observations to create images and make measurements. This combination of simplicity and flexibility makes it possible for students to work not just in the classroom, but in their own time.
For the more ambitious student, there are also a number of large-scale collaborative projects where data is collected or analysed by students all over the country and collated by us. These projects often involve genuine research - from studying the evolution of Supernovae, through to exploring the orbits of potentially hazardous asteroids or searching for extra-solar planets.
In order to have the maximum impact, particularly with non-specialist teachers and schools in deprived areas, it is essential that the NSO remains free. By developing the NSO as a highly automated web-based resource we have ensured that it requires only a low-level of staffing to deal with user queries and provide ongoing development. This support is provided by LJMU and is explicitly mentioned in the University’s agreement with the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) as a key component of their Access strategy. However, in order to secure indefinite funding we are working with a commercial partner to develop products that extend the resources of the NSO to support international education and “hobby” astronomers worldwide.
Evidence of Impact
Since its launch in 2004 the NSO has grown considerably and now has over 8000 registered users from over 2000 schools (users are a mixture of teachers and pupils, the majority in secondary schools or sixth form/FE colleges). We have delivered nearly 40,000 observations to users and the website received more than 1,300,000 visits in 2011.
The national importance of the NSO as a resource for widening access to HE was recognised in a recent House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee report http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmsctech/806/...) and Ofsted have commented positively in reports on the use of the NSO. We have been awarded “kitemarks” by the National Grid for Learning (as an important cross-curricular resource for Key Stage 2, 3, 4 and 5 teaching) and the Royal Astronomical Society, and the use of the LT is explicitly promoted in the syllabus for Edexcel’s GCSE in Astronomy. Finally, the NSO was a key component of the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize awarded to LJMU in 2005.
All NSO resources are developed in collaboration with teachers and are extensively tested in the classroom (e.g. in feedback from a trial of a new “Hunting for Asteroids” resource 48/50 pupils said that they now “understood more about space” and 49/50 said that they “enjoyed” the resource – www.schoolsobservatory.org.uk/asteroids). However, this feedback cannot really assess the long-term impact on attitudes to science and so here we rely on more anecdotal and qualitative data:
“Astronomy gave me a real insight into physics and made me decide on what I wanted to do at degree level” (Simon, A-level student)
“Being able to do science rather than just have the textbook approach really got me interested.”
(Student evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee, 2011)
However, it is from teachers that the most important recognition comes. As the National Coordinator of the Institute of Physics Teacher Network (Gary Williams) says “The continued support of teachers for a scheme such as this only comes when they see that pupils are being enthused – it speaks volumes that so many schools continue to be involved with the NSO.”