Accessibility in STEM Education through Low-Cost & Self-Assembly Telescopes

Experiential learning opportunities in middle school, high school, and undergraduate-level physics and astronomy courses are severely limited due to the inaccessibility of observational opportunities which are critical components of applying physical and astronomical knowledge. Prebuilt telescopes, telescope kits, and image editing software used in observation and astrophotography tend to be prohibitively expensive and technically inaccessible. Additionally, late-night meetings, even in on-campus areas, pose safety concerns to students and are contingent on astronomy labs’ limited schedules, appropriate weather, and adequate light pollution conditions. We aim to combat this issue through two avenues: namely, through the evaluation of a low-cost telescope equipped with a phone mount (The Celestron FirstScope, a $\lesssim75$ 76mm Dobsonian telescope) and through the evaluation of self-assembly telescope kits, also equipped with phone mounts, on standard astronomy lab and experiential learning curricula. Both pathways will identify and evaluate the ease of use and assembly, portability, accessibility, and viewing quality of each equipment setup before applying them to a rigorous astronomical project such as measuring and analyzing a brightness variation of a bright variable star over a multi-day period to reproduce the textbook example in the real world environment. Through a more accessible hands-on experience, we aim to improve experiential learning opportunities and educational measures for undergraduate students, expanding the depth of astronomy curriculum and furthering educational measures, potentially through the implementation of a class focused on telescope construction and usage. In addition, we hope to develop more cogent outreach components and opportunities with middle and high schools through the usage of telescopes and lab settings, providing recruitment opportunities for future students by fostering interests in astronomy, astrophotography and physics.

As a passionate advocate for accessible astronomy, my journey began in high school where I co-founded an astronomy club. Through relentless fundraising efforts, we provided underprivileged kids with access to telescope equipment, fostering their curiosity about the cosmos. Winning the NCCSS STEM Student of the Year Innovation award for building an 18“ Dobsonian telescope was a proud moment. Inspired by this success, we embarked on a CubeSat project to gather data from the upper ionosphere. Personally invested in telescope accessibility, I'm determined to enhance astronomy education at UGA. With a broken observatory and limited on-campus opportunities, I aim to revamp the curriculum and bolster student recruitment efforts, particularly targeting local middle and high school students in Athens.

In executing my vision for enhancing telescope accessibility, I've adopted a multifaceted approach. First and foremost, I meticulously evaluate low-cost telescopes through rigorous lab worksheets, ensuring their functionality and educational value. Additionally, I explore the feasibility of self-assembly telescope kits, recognizing their potential to empower users through hands-on learning experiences. To democratize access further, I implement a loan system, providing local middle and high schools as well as astronomy labs with both low-cost telescopes and self-assembly kits. This hands-on approach not only fosters engagement but also allows for direct feedback collection. Through comprehensive surveys, I gauge students' experiences, evaluating the functionality, quality, and ease of use of the telescopes, thereby refining our offerings to better serve our educational goals.

Our outreach goals for this project are ambitious yet vital for fostering a vibrant interest in physics and astronomy within the local Athens community and beyond. We aim to bolster student recruitment efforts for the physics and astronomy programs at UGA by showcasing the exciting possibilities these fields offer. By enhancing active and experiential learning opportunities within the physics department, we seek to ignite curiosity and passion for scientific inquiry among students. Through a series of engaging outreach events, we intend to create a welcoming environment that encourages academic exploration and intellectual curiosity. Furthermore, we aspire to make our resources widely accessible by distributing open-source materials throughout the University System of Georgia, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to engage with the wonders of the cosmos.

A telescope and a smartphone mount were ordered and delivered.

The telescope is a dobsonian scope with a 76mm reflector optical tube. It is equipped with an alt-azimuth mount attached to the optical tube, and comes with two eyepieces: a 4mm eyepiece with 75 viewing power, and a 20mm eyepiece with 15 viewing power.

The phone mount, although a little bulky, is able to accommodate a range of device sizes (with and without the case attached). Cellphones with larger cameras or multiple lenses (e.g. newer iPhone models) may need to zoom their fields of view in marginally to prevent a vignette from appearing around the image due to the eyepiece mount of the phone mount infringing on the field of view.

Additionally, I reached out to Dr. Magnani regarding outdoor astronomy lab content I could use to evaluate both the self-assembly and low-cost telescopes on. He shared an indoor lab in which students must evaluate their telescopes and identify functions of components; I'm still looking for outdoor lab content that isn't specific to any institute's on-campus telescope. It's proving to be somewhat difficult, finding a fully-usable lab, so I'm thinking I'll have to combine questions from multiple labs and re-write them depending on the capacities of these telescopes. I did find two labs from Boston University [1] [2] that may prove as useful starting points for this process.

Telescope (side view); eyepieces and phone mount not attached.
Phone mount (without phone/phone case equipped).
Phone mount (with phone case equipped; phone not attached as it was needed to take the photo).
4mm (75 viewing power) eyepiece.
20mm (15 viewing power) eyepiece.

Actual on-sky observations of celestial objects with this telescope+smartphone setup will be tried over the coming weeks.

On Apr 30, some photos were taken with the telescope and smartphone. The focus might have been non-optimal as can be seen in the tadpole-tail structure around stars. They were not saturated when checking their radial profiles. We can try to focus better.