The NSF-funded Northwest Indiana Robotic (NIRo) Telescope is a project designed to bring first-rate astronomical research and project-oriented science education to Purdue University Calumet (PUC) and the surrounding school districts and communities. The NIRo Telescope—a 20-inch advanced Ritchey-Chrétien reflecting telescope with a wide-field CCD imager—will be used primarily for remote, unattended observing and will be housed in a dedicated observatory.
As envisioned, the NIRo Telescope provides:
- a platform for high-quality undergraduate research and education at PUC
- a robust primary education component
- a variety of community outreach opportunities in cooperation with the LCPRD and the CAS.
The NIRo Telescope will increase the body of current astronomical knowledge through high-quality research and will also improve course and laboratory curricula at PUC in several ways: high-quality research projects for undergraduates, the development of new, upper-level astrophysics courses, and the implementation of introductory- to intermediate-level lab experiments for our existent astronomy and physics courses.
Undergraduate research supported by federal or state programs, such as the NSF Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation or the Indiana Space Grant Consortium, will be enhanced with the introduction of the research programs mentioned above. Physics majors at PUC will receive direct, hands-on, observational experience that may not otherwise become available to them until well into their graduate careers. There are numerous research projects ready for immediate implementation under the guidance of PUC faculty. These research projects will provide results suitable for peer-reviewed publication and all take advantage of the NIRo Telescope’s operational model. With a strategic queuing system and year-round access, it will be an ideal facility from which to study systems that change over time, either in brightness or in position. Examples of such projects ready for immediate implementation include monitoring nearby stars with known planetary systems for transit events, adding data to the intensely debated field of planetary formation theory; tracking variability in so-called ‘blue straggler’ stars in open clusters, adding important data to the study of their formation, structure, and dynamical histories; using the variability of quasars to refine time-series analysis algorithms and to investigate the central engine physics of quasars and other active galactic nuclei. In addition to these research projects, students will have the opportunity to develop new observing campaigns under the guidance of the PUC astronomy faculty.
The NIRo Telescope will also enhance the current physics and astronomy courses at PUC via direct access to astronomical data, new laboratory experiments, on-site visits, and casual observation sessions. A new, upper-level course in modern observational techniques will also be developed.
The observatory will also have a broader impact on astronomy education at PUC and throughout the surrounding communities. A good portion of the time and manpower for the NIRo Telescope project will initially go towards the development of a primary education program. In conjunction with the PUC School of Education, the data products of our observational campaigns will be developed into curricula and learning materials in line with the Indiana Earth and Space Science curricula for grades 6 – 8. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first proposal to specifically target primary science education through the use of a research-grade, automated telescope. We hope to improve the science education in local middle schools by introducing them to the Earth and Space Science curricula requirements through an immersion in real research, a combination of on-site and virtual observing at the NIRo Telescope, and actual data, taken by the students themselves, of our own solar system (e.g., asteroid searches, Jovian moon monitoring). The NIRo Telescope project will be an ideal pilot program for the new PUC Center for Science and Technology Education and City of Hammond’s Urban Academy for Science and Technology.
In addition to the middle schools of Lake and Porter counties of Indiana, the data, images, and research results will be placed and maintained on a dedicated website, giving access to a much larger audience. PUC astronomers are collaborating with the CAS and LCPRD in community outreach projects, such as nighttime viewing sessions, public talks, and on-site, summer youth astronomy camps. Such programs have already met with success. During its inaugural year, the LCPRD Youth Astronomy Camp saw 40 children from Lake and Porter counties in Indiana and Cook county in Illinois participate in four observing and informal education sessions organized by CAS members and PUC faculty at Buckley Homestead. Such programs will continue in the coming years. With the NIRo Telescope, virtual open houses from the PUC campus will also be implemented, where images from the telescope may be projected locally as the telescope is commanded via an Internet connection. The virtual open house model is a supplement to the more traditional, on-site observing, allowing a wider audience access to the telescope and our glimpses of the Universe.