American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
Fri, 11/15/2013 - 17:39

Thank You Arne,

 Your response will be very helpful in trying to get possible student projects off the ground. The “things to watch out for” contained the first steps in answering some of the exact questions I had.

  I would be very glad of any further input from you or anyone else. This could be suggestions as to possible projects for students or equipment and software issues.

  I am a member of AAVSO (DDAA) and have looked at the material on the website. Much of that will be useful to get students started.

  My contact is

Duane Dedrickson

American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
shoul have listed the original

This is my original message and a response from Arne.

>   I work as the lab tech for physics and astronomy at Lane Community college. We
> have lost our astronomy instructors recently so that the astronomy courses there
> are currently on hold and are being revised. Since I have been an active
> (sometimes more active than others) amateur for many years, I’ve been asked to
> look into a few things concerning the courses.
>     One of these is student projects using remote telescope access. I’ve been
> told that the University of Oregon Pine Mountain Observatory may cooperate.
> Since I don’t have any experience with this, I would like to know what is
> involved with equipment and software issues.
>   If anyone can give me some feedback I would be very much appreciative. My
> email is
> Duane Dedrickson

Hi Duane,
Remote telescope access has many benefits for students.  Usually the telescope
is located at a dark site (not the center of Eugene!), often with good weather,
and in some cases, at a different longitude so that students don't have to stay
up at night.  I don't know the setup at PMO and so can't tell you how effective
that particular telescope will be.  The things to watch out for:

- is it remote observing (the student interacts during image acquisition, moves
the telescope, etc.), or robotic observing (usually queue scheduled; the
telescope takes the data and you look at the images later)?

- what software do they have at PMO, and what software is required at Lane?

- how are images transferred after acquisition?

- who takes the calibration images (bias, darks, flatfields)?

- how much observing time can you get (that tells you what kind of projects
might be possible)?

- what is the instrumentation (that is, camera, filters, how well does the
telescope track, is there an autoguider, etc.)?

The AAVSO's robotic telescopes (AAVSOnet) are only available to members (though
a student membership is less than the cost of a typical textbook).  However,
PMO, or perhaps Sierra Stars Observatory, or even Las Cumbres, might have
educational components at low cost.

American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
And introduce visual observing as well!

At a community college, what percentage of introductory astronomy class students will go into professional astronomy? Based on my experience teaching at this level, many if not most, take such classes in survey mode, or to satisfy general science requirements, rather than for going into hard-core career astrophysics tracks.

Therefore, it might be good to introduce them to visual observing at this level. I would suppose the lab has some telescopes available for visual? Or even binoculars to share amongst the students? This would be a great way to introduce students to variable star observing, in a more direct mode, possibly using their own home telescopes in the future. They could learn about finding their way around the sky by their own, rather than relying solely on goto or computer systems.

This venue may be a great source of young visual observing talent, which they could then follow for their lifetime, regardless of what professional field they eventually decide to go into.

Thanks for considering this approach!

Mike LMK

American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
be creative and judicious with the projects

Hi Duane,

As a teaching assistant for an introductory astronomy course at my university, I've helped astronomy students with their observing projects for nearly six years. Over that time, I've given a lot of thought to how I would teach the class if I were the instructor--including how I would handle observing projects.

Based on my experience and on student feedback, I've come to realize that it's critical to be judicious with assigning observing projects. In general, non-astronomy majors really don't care much about the course. They're in the class because it fulfills a requirement, not necessarily because they're interested in the subject. I can't stress this enough.

With that in mind, it's important to design projects which students will find engaging; from their perspective, a lot of well-intentioned observing projects can devolve into busywork. For example, the students in this semester's astronomy class found observing Venus to be boring, trivial, and disappointing. Likewise, they did not enjoy the Messier-observing project because the skies are so bright that the Messier objects just look like fuzzy blobs. Thus, I would limit visual observing projects to only the best-looking and brightest objects in the sky (basically, the Sun, Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn).

I would also create observing projects which emphasize to the students how non-scientists can make meaningful contributions to astronomical research. For example, our students were once required to observe a bright RR Lyrae star with a CCD camera. The teaching assistants acquired the target star and took care of all the hard work. The students only needed to click the "expose" button; copy the fluxes of the target, comparison, and check stars from the computer screen; and use a fomula that they were given to calculate the differential magnitude of the target star. Since the teaching assistants did the hard part, the workload for the students with this project was quite reasonable. Nevertheless, their observations were used to create a light curve of the star and to measure its period. They got a taste of scientific research without the headache of learning how to take photometry. Hopefully, this project imparted in at least a few of them a curiosity in scientific inquiry, regardless of whatever they went on to study. I suspect that you might be able to do something similar with remote telescope access.

Sorry for rambling for so long!

Best Regards,


American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
thanks for the comments

Hello Everyone,

  The feedback that I have received is all great. I will take as much advice as I can get, either through the forum or my direct contact. As I develop more specific questions I may target them toward some of you specifically if that is alright.

  At Lane CC there have in the past been two astronomy courses. One is a one quarter survey course, the other is a 3 quarter sequence. Our physics courses are integrated lab-lecture format where the labs, demos and lectures are all incorporated into one. The astronomy classes are being revised to follow the same format as much as possible. The 3 quarter sequence and some of the physics classes are transferable for university credit.

  Another thing that I have considered is the SIDS monitoring as done in the Solar Section. I looked through some of the material on this. Comments would be welcome on that subject also.


American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
Solar observing

Hello Duane,

You will likely get a better response about solar observing if you post in our solar forum:…

Please feel free to create a post specific to teaching college students about SID monitoring in the Solar forum!

Lauren Rosenbaum, AAVSO Administrative Assistant