From the May 2002 issue

Telescopes across an ocean

A TIE user in Great Britain shares his experiences with the program.
By | Published: May 29, 2002 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Physics teacher David Smith has a unique perspective on Telescopes in Education (TIE). Unlike most of the program’s users, he uses TIE from a school outside the United States. Having also taught in the U.S. in the past, he has participated in TIE with his students at the Highgate School in north London. Smith talked to Astronomy about the benefits and pitfalls of using a telescope that’s a continent and an ocean away.

Tell me a little bit about Highgate School.

It’s a private school. In our terms, we call it an ancient public school. It was founded in 1565, although for most of its life it was sort of a one-room schoolhouse. Not only until the Victorian times did it expand. It’s now quite a big institution, by our standards anyway. We have about 600 pupils. It’s a boys’ school, actually. Well, it’s all boys at the moment. We go co-ed in two years’ time.

We call it our senior school, which is like junior high and senior high combined. But we go down to quite a young age, to about a thousand pupils on the campus as a whole, shall we say. I teach in the senior school, so I teach basically grades eight through twelve, just physics. I’m actually the head of the physics department there. I’ve been there for 18 years. We’re situated on the north, on the periphery of central London.

How did you become involved in Telescopes in Education?

Through a colleague called Paul Roche. He’s an astrophysicist and he was working at Sussex University down in Brighton, which is about 60 miles to the south of London. I think I was visiting the university for an astronomy open day or something, and I just saw a poster or a board with some information about the TIE program, and it looked interesting. So somehow I was put in touch with Paul. I think he already got some experience with the program and was trying to promote it in local schools — not in London, down on the south coast. When he heard I was interested, he said that he’d come up to London and sort of get us started. A little bit of hand-holding had to go on when we first went through the procedures. So he and a colleague came up. We bought the software in the meantime. Paul and Carole [Haswell] came up and led us through it. And we were quite lucky, it worked very well the first time. You know, there’s always problems with weather and stuff like that. Looking back, maybe if it hadn’t worked first time that would’ve been the end of it, you know. We would’ve said, “Oh dear, this is trouble.” But it did work first time and it seemed like a good thing.

So then we went solo. And it’s been about five years that we’ve been doing it now. It has changed quite a bit in that time, and I can tell you about the changes we’ve experienced if you wish.

Sure, go ahead.

Well, you probably know there are basically two telescopes which can be operated at the moment. The oldest one is the 24-inch, and that’s the one we used first of all. It wasn’t the days before the Internet, exactly, but it was the days before we could control the telescope over the Internet. So it was done over phone lines and modems. And from the U.K. or the European perspective, the program’s outstanding because of the 8-hour time difference. We can do astronomy in the classroom at 10 o’clock in the morning because it’s dark in California; and that really is magic. You have a captive audience, you don’t have to stay late and get cold or whatever. Plus in the middle of London you can’t do astronomy anyway. But the drawback is that certainly in the early days we had to keep the phone line open to California at mid-morning for an hour. And so that was costing us, you know, getting over $100 probably for a session. Using the program doesn’t cost anything, but you have to buy the software. There’s a little bit of capital expenditure at the outset. But then there was the significant cost for us, which was the telephone bill. Now, my school felt it was justified to do that sort of once every couple of weeks, so we did. But the program has not taken off in almost any way at all in Europe generally, despite the fact that I have been trying to spread the word. And one of the reasons in the early days was certainly the expense. A lot of schools just felt they couldn’t afford that sort of telephone bill. Most of the users of TIE are in America, and obviously they don’t have that problem. They’re not making trans-Atlantic telephone calls to do it. So that’s the way we sort of continued for I guess about the first three years. Lots of successful sessions.

I generally use it a sort of a stimulus tool for our eighth-grade classes, primarily. Not really hard science, it just lets them do something different. It was very successful from that point of view, really. It wasn’t like a normal lesson. The kids didn’t have to take notes or anything. It was a bit more relaxed and, I don’t know, made them feel a bit better about physics as a subject. It’s a tough subject, and lots of them are not very good at it and don’t like it. So if something fun happens occasionally, that’s in our interest.

Meanwhile, I’d made a couple of trips out to Pasadena to meet some of the faces behind the program, which was great fun. I spent a night on the mountain and pretended to be an astronomer and things like that. That was fun. I hadn’t been to Mount Wilson before. I hadn’t been to Los Angeles before, actually. My first job actually was in New York City back in 1976. I spent two years teaching in a small, private high school in New York City. I go back to America quite a lot, but…I didn’t really go out to the west coast very much. Suddenly an opportunity arose and I went. So that was kind of fun.

The program still relies on volunteer operators — not professional astronomers who work on the mountain, but people who will spend an occasional night on the mountain and switch things on and rotate the dome and stuff like that so people around the world can use the telescopes. And just talking to them, there was kind of a cultural aspect to it, actually. It wasn’t just doing astronomy using technology, we were also talking to a crazy Californian who was willing to stay up in the middle of the night so that we could do live astronomy in the classroom. And that was interesting both for me but for the kids as well. They would actually almost more enjoy talking to someone in America than they would using the telescopes. But hey, that’s fine. If you create some stimulus, that’s the main thing.

There was kind of a cultural aspect to it…we were also talking to a crazy Californian who was willing to stay up in the middle of the night so that we could do live astronomy.

Gil Clark, the founder, is a visionary and he has lots of ideas about where the program’s going to go and obviously getting the telescope or a telescope on the Internet was one of his goals. Finally about two years ago they bought a 14-inch Celestron, I think with some Japanese money. There’s been a lot of interest in the program in Japan. And I think there was a Japanese benefactor who bought them an off-the-shelf Celestron and they found another little house to put it in. I was one of the first people, certainly outside the U.S. anyway, to be allowed to use that. And that coincided with this TV crew arriving and making a short infomercial about me and TIE. Basically, they’d been commissioned to make six small, short programs about uses of the Internet. And just searching the Internet they came across this. They were based in London, so I was right there. So they came along. And at the time I actually wasn’t using the Internet, I was still using the phone lines and stuff. So we very quickly had to get me the software that meant I could use the Internet. But anyway, that got me kickstarted on using the 14-inch over the Internet, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, actually, for the last two years.

Is that located on Mount Wilson as well?

It’s on Mount Wilson, that’s right. It’s a stones-throw from the 24-inch. But it’s a different set-up. When you’re using the 24-inch, there has to be a volunteer operator in the dome the whole time because, although you’re in control of the telescope, they have to move the dome. There are plans to automate the dome so it moves with the telescope, but at the moment they have to be there to do that. Also, it’s actually quite useful because they can kind of tell you if there’s cloud in one part of the sky they can tell you not to point the telescope there, because they can see it.

The 14-inch is a different ballgame. There’s no dome, it lives in a shed, and the roof of the shed rolls off. So it’s then completely open to the elements. Occasionally the operator will sit and watch what’s going on, but often they’re kind of looking out for the 24-inch at the same time, so they’ll just turn things on in the 14-inch shed and then go away. So it’s kind of scary. From six thousand miles away, you’re controlling this thing and you cannot see it. It’s not like there’s a webcam watching it or anything. And of course it’s at night so you couldn’t see anything anyway. You just have to kind of know what you’re doing. But there’s another drawback as well. Because it’s not in a dome it’s not actually shielded, so there’s a bit of breeze. The telescope tends to wobble around a bit, so the images are often not very sharp. But it’s still a very unique program as far as school’s concerned. I don’t know of any other programs whereby schools can operate remote telescopes robotically in real time. That’s very exciting.

Have you used other telescopes in addition to those two?

No. The TIE program, as you possibly know, have two more telescopes installed in other locations, one in Chile and one in Australia. The Chile one was there first, but there’s been some problems with bandwidth, basically — problems with getting information there and back. So the Australian one is likely to get off the ground first. Gil is flying out in June I think to dedicate the Australian telescope. I bought Gil dinner a couple weeks ago, so I’m in his good books. I’m hoping therefore that we might be one of the first schools to be able to have a go with that. That would be terrific fun because that would be the first time I’ve seen the southern sky through a telescope. That’s going to be very exciting. So soon I hope I could answer your question that yes, I have used other telescopes. But at the moment, no.

So it’s just the two on Mount Wilson that are currently operating with TIE?

Yes. And the 24-inch is now on the Internet as well, so they’re both controlled over the Internet now.

How are the sessions set up at your school?

I do this in normal class time. The sessions are generally an hour or two hours, something like that. And our class is fifty minutes. So obviously there’ll be an essential overlap between my class time and a session. I tend to do it with eighth graders and I’ll just get them in. I tend to do a little kind of shpiel beforehand. I have a presentation about what the program is, where Los Angeles is. We have maps on the wall and things like that. It’s a geography lesson. That’s the good thing about it, it’s not just astronomy. There’s a bit of geography. We’re a fairly posh private school, so a lot of them have been to Los Angeles. They know where it is. But they may not know where Pasadena is, and they may not have noticed the mountains to the northeast. They’ll have heard of Edwin Hubble — well, they may not know he was called Edwin, but they’ll have heard of Hubble — but they probably don’t know what he did or where he worked. The amount of astronomy they will have done by then is variable. Some will have an interest in that stuff already, others won’t. So I’ll tell them a little about that, about the program, about the observatory. I think one of the neat things is that it’s not like a telescope anywhere, it’s a telescope on Mount Wilson, which has a fundamental place in the history of astronomy because in the 1920s that’s where Hubble did his work and for twenty years it was the place which had the biggest telescope in the world. So it was the place to do astronomy before Palomar was created. I have an interest in the history of science so I enjoy talking about that.

It’s not like a telescope anywhere; it’s a telescope on Mount Wilson, which has a fundamental place in the history of astronomy.

So that’ll be ten to fifteen minutes and then we go live and hope that everything works. I do have to say that everything does not always work. There are problems with weather. The weather appears to be getting worse, I must say. I still tell people that on average you get 250 clear nights a year on Mount Wilson, but it doesn’t seem like that anymore. And there are annoying things, like you check the weather forecast ahead of time and it says visibility is 100 miles and things like this, but then the session’s cancelled because they tell you there’s snow on the ground and it’s blowing around. So you can’t always tell how it’s going to be. And there have been some technical problems. I don’t want to criticize at all. All the guys who do this are terrific. I’ve met some of them and they’re real nice. They’ve been trained how to set things up, but they make the occasional mistake. And so I try to log on and I can’t, and it’s simply because someone hasn’t pushed the right button at the other end or closed down the screen or something. So there are frustrations, but I guess real astronomers will tell you there are always frustrations with astronomy. Unfortunately, when you’ve got a class sitting there, you don’t really want that.

And what do you do in those situations?

Well, the advantage I have is, compared to people in the U.S. who will have to stay behind after school or maybe have to come in real early, for them when it doesn’t work, then, okay, what do you do with the kids at four in the morning? I just have them in the class so we can go back and do Boyle’s Law or whatever. So it’s not too much of a problem. Plus, once it happens once or twice, you get used to it. And I can always show them [pictures] we took earlier. We can’t do a live run necessarily, but I can show them the software and show them how it would’ve worked, and we can look at pictures.

There are people who criticize the program because they say, “Well, yeah, you can take a picture of the Crab Nebula, but we can get several pictures of the Crab Nebula which are ten times better from the Internet, so why bother?” And I think the answer is that we’re doing it live and it’s our picture. It’s not one that we’ve taken off the Hubble Heritage website, it’s one that we took. And they’re pretty good images, and they’re plenty good enough to be able to talk about stellar evolution or galactic morphology or something. Everybody who uses the program builds up a bank of images. And then you can always refer to those if things don’t work out.

I guess the most inconvenient time when I was doing a session in front of an audience of 200. We had it carefully planned, and then a storm blew in, so we couldn’t do it. But I had arranged so that we could at least talk to the operator, so we heard an American voice. But I just showed them a selection of images of things they would have seen. And it was okay.

When it does work, how do you operate the telescope? Do you do it yourself or have the students do it?

I’ll do it the first couple of times and then I’ll get the students to do it. It’s real easy. And they tend to be more computer literate than we are generally. Well, they don’t mind making mistakes. We teachers are all scared about, well, if you know there’s twenty thousand dollars’ worth of equipment sitting out there. The students don’t handle that quite the same way. But I have to say that we’re quite lucky with technology at my school. We have data projectors, LCD projectors, and smart boards, interactive white boards. I’m not quite sure what you call them. So the way we do it now actually is by touching a screen on the wall, and that’s really quite cool as well, the fact that you can just tap on the wall and something six thousand miles away moves. It’s quite cool.

So they’re like interactive computer screens?

Yeah, it’s a bit like that. Basically, it’s a big thing on the wall. It’s just like a white board only it’s interactive. It’s like you can remote-control the desktop from the wall. The first way we did it is we had an image on the computer screen, then we kind of blew the image up onto a big screen TV. And then data projectors, LCD projectors, began to become — I won’t say affordable because they’re still kind of expensive — but they arrived. And we got one for the school. And suddenly you have an image on the wall which is several feet wide, and there was a quantum jump in how interesting it was because it was in your face, just bigger. That’s how these white boards work. I have an image on the wall that’s like maybe, I don’t know, five feet by three feet or something, and you stand there and just tap on the wall to control the computer. It’s very, very good, I have to say. We are a bit lucky. Not many schools will have that sort of facility. It’s a great way of using that technology.

We’ll do a bit of picking and choosing of what we want to look at next or something like that. But we don’t spend a lot of time planning what’s going on. I mean, that would be nice, but we have a syllabus. We’re very exam-driven in the U.K. You have to get through a syllabus. It’s like you have state standards and national standards. We’ve been like that for a long time. I can’t spend a couple of weeks preparing for a session and then doing follow-up and stuff like that. So we tend to make things up a bit as we go along. But they can say, “What’s that M3 thing?” or something, so we look at M3. I have tried to structure it a bit on occasion just by restricting ourselves to a particular constellation. It’s all deep-sky stuff. That’s what these telescopes are good at. And maybe sometimes we just zero in on one constellation and look at the things around there, rather than just dotting across the sky. Sometimes some schools just try to see as many objects as they can, how many they can fit into an hour, that sort of thing. My aim is more to structure it around, you know, let’s look at a region where stars are being formed, let’s look at what stars look like when they die, stuff like that.

How many students are usually in a class?

I’ll normally have about twenty. The largest class that we have at the school is 24. So somewhere around 20 students at a time, for an hour.

What’s the extent of astronomy education there?

We do things called GCSE courses, that’s for General Certificate of Secondary Education. And they’re all exam-based. They have exams at the end of 10th grade, when they’re 16 or so, in a whole range of subjects.There are some core subjects: English, math, science, languages. You know, regular school stuff. In the physics part of that about a ninth of the course is on astronomy, on Earth and space. So they need to know a little about the Earth-moon system, a little about the solar system, a little bit about the Milky Way, and a little about the universe as a whole — the Big Bang and stuff. They need to know a little bit about the life cycle of a star, a little bit about what galaxies are. So this fits in quite well. In my school we normally teach it in the 10th grade, although I tend to do TIE with them in the 8th grade, simply because they’re a little less cynical then. The eighth graders really enjoy it. I don’t know, kids have problems showing enthusiasm for things when they get a little older. It’s not cool to show enthusiasm. But in the 8th grade they’re still okay on that.

Do you usually use the same group of students?

No. In eighth grade we have six different — we call them sets — six classes. I try to show everybody at least once. If once that’s happened, we’ll go around again or something. But this year only a third of the groups has seen it so far, which is kind of a shame.

How often do you access the telescopes?

I try to do it every few weeks, but it depends a bit on what the TIE people on the other end are able to provide. Not surprisingly, they have problems finding volunteer operators for what are called the a.d. sessions, the 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-in-the-morning sessions. So it’s not available every night of the week. So I try to get sessions booked when I can every two or three weeks, knowing that several of them just won’t happen for one reason or another. I have to admit that this year has not been very successful. Since September I’ve only had two successful runs for one reason or another, which is a shame, but I’m not going to be critical. It’s often due to no fault of anybody. Things just haven’t worked out.

Do you do anything with the data or the images once you’ve collected them?

Not a whole lot yet, no. I’m sure there’s some good science you could do with these things, but — I think it’s a factor of two things. I’m not an astronomer, so if I’m going to do anything with the images, I’m going to have to go read books. And as much as I’d like to do that I’ve got other stuff I have to be doing. The other thing is that we’re very exam-driven over here and we need to get through the syllabus. I’m very envious of American education because there’s certain stuff they have to deliver, but they can do it — not quite any way they want — but if someone comes up with an interesting way of doing something, they can generally pick that up. We tend to have to stick to textbooks a bit more and stick to syllabuses a bit more. We’re a bit more limited in the way we can deliver things in the classroom.

People have done some good work with the images. They’ve done some quantitative stuff with photometry, variable stars, stuff like that. But it’s not something we’ve done so far.

That’s certainly my feeling, yes. The reception of this in the astronomical community as a whole I find really quite interesting. I’ve done quite a lot of presentations about the program over here, and if you do it for amateur astronomers, they get really jealous. They say, “Why do schoolkids get access to something this good? Why can’t we?” And I just can’t abide with that. I mean, we’re trying to get kids interested in science for heaven’s sakes. Why should they be denied some of the good stuff? And then you get professional astronomers will be saying that you shouldn’t be playing around with this sort of stuff. You’ve got to be doing serious science all the time. But these are the people who don’t work in schools and don’t spend time in classrooms.

I’ve seen what happens when you just do a fun session. It’s educational, they learn quite a lot, and basically they’re just really interested. In a 50-minute session I get more good questions during a TIE run than I would get in a month otherwise, because they’re interested. Kids have heard of the Big Bang, but they might not know what it is. They probably don’t know what a galaxy is, but they’re willing to ask and find out. The numbers in astronomy get very silly very quickly — you know, the distances, the time light has been traveling for — and they get some appreciation for that when you tell them the photons have been traveling for millions of years before they hit the telescope to make that image. It’s gee whiz, wow, kind of stuff.

So I don’t apologize for the fact I don’t do hard science, but I’m sure you can do hard science. Very, very few of them are going to go on to be professional astronomers, if any, so why pretend?

Have you had any students show interest beyond this program and continue to study astronomy?

I can’t say I have, actually. I don’t know of anybody who has been turned on to astrophysics as such. We get a small number that go on to do physics or engineering or something every year. But actually a lot kids at our school go down the business route in the end. So no, I can’t say it’s changed anybody’s life so far. It’s changed my life, but I don’t know about the students’ lives.

What do you think is the toughest thing about using TIE?

The thing I find the most upsetting is the frustration of having a session cancelled, because there’s a bit of build-up. I know there’s a session tomorrow morning, and I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that everything’s going to work. The way I run this is I’ll often steal a class from a colleague, because I don’t have total control over when I can book a session, so it doesn’t always work out, but we have the kids in the physics department. So sometimes I’ll steal a class from somewhere. And my colleagues enjoy it, too. They don’t seem too unhappy about me stealing a class, because that means they get a lesson off. So you go through a reasonable amount of preparation and then you wake up and there’s an email saying, “Sorry David, the session’s cancelled due to high winds” or something.

In terms of actually doing it, it’s not difficult to get it to happen. If you’ve got any kind of computer experience at all it’s not difficult. Certainly the Internet thing is a breeze to use, I have to say. It’s also tough I suppose if there’s something you can’t do anything about, like if the telescope has not been focused properly or it’s gone out of focus, I can’t do anything about that apart from calling up and saying, “Can you fix the focus for next time?” So that’s a bit frustrating. But again, astronomers tell me that’s the frustration with astronomy generally. You’re using gear that has to be sensitively set up, and if it isn’t, then things don’t work out very well.

And the best thing about using TIE?

I think the best thing is being able to do astronomy with a captive audience, being able to do astronomy in the classroom without having to stay behind or get up early or something. Again, I guess that’s what astronomers do, but it’s not the way to enthuse kids. I mean, some of them enjoy doing silly stuff like that. But in the middle of London — I mean, it’s a continual surprise to me that a lot of early astronomy was done in the U.K. where the weather is generally appalling. But yet William Herschel discovered Uranus from his back yard in Bath. But you wonder sometimes how astronomy ever got done. We’re in London where the light pollution is appalling, yet we can now do astronomy from the comforts of our classroom. And that is amazing. We’re using a unique program, and it’s a privilege. It’s been a really good experience.