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2003 Yerkes Summer Institute
August 2 - 8, 2003
Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, WI


Participants:  28 students; 17 instructors; 50 parents, siblings, and younger students

Introduction  •  Daytime Laboratories  •  Nighttime Laboratories  •  Instructors

Summer 2003 Students
 2003 summer institute students
(click to enlarge)
The CfCP Yerkes Summer Institute (YSI) is a one-week, immersive, residential, science program for inner city middle and high school students held at the historic Yerkes Observatory. The institute is the high point of the year for the students who have participated in a full range of CfCP activities including weekly laboratory sessions, faculty lab tours, and enrichment trips. The institute's long duration and all-day schedule encourages the participants to delve deeply into the process of scientific inquiry. This structure also facilitates extended discussions and interactions between researchers and students as well as peer-to-peer communication. The instructional staff is a mix of research scientists and educators, a mixture which ensures that the science is accurate and that the activities are appropriately targeted.

This year the Space Explorers tackled a core cosmological conundrum with the unifying theme of "How Big is Our Universe?" They explored this question in a variety of manners, from constructing model solar systems on the Yerkes grounds, to analyzing Sloan Digital Sky Survey data, which they used to build a distance ladder that stretched 6.5 billion light years. These interrelated activities helped to focus the students on the concept of determining astronomical sizes and distances.

A number of pre-institute preparation sessions were held to motivate the investigations, and more practically, to develop needed skills. Topics ranged from a basic introduction to the components of the universe, to small angle approximations, to using software to measure apparent size. Students were also given a course booklet that contained an overview of the week, detailed schedules, and instructions for the different laboratory activities.

The institute commenced with introductions and an overview of the week, followed by a Star Party hosted by the Milwaukee Astronomical Society. The rest of the week was spent cycling through interrelated daytime laboratories in small groups, nighttime observations, peer discussions, and deeper explorations into each laboratory. The week culminated with student presentations that engaged parents, siblings, and younger students in the experiments that they had conducted during the week. Certificates of accomplishment and appreciation were presented at a closing ceremony. Further information on this year's summer institute, including the schedule, is provided here.

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  • Charles Brass
  • Kyle Cudworth
  • Richard Dreiser
  • Bill Fisher
  • Ken Gardner
  • Sarah Hansen (CfCP 2003/04 TA)
  • Matthew Hedman
  • Vivian Hoette
  • Dan Holz
  • Rich Kron
  • Randy Landsberg
  • Jonathan Mitchell
  • Takemi Okamoto
  • Andy Puckett (CfCP 2002/03 TA)
  • Mark SubbaRao
  • Phil Wisecup
  • Brian Wilhite
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Building a Model of the Solar System
Andrew Puckett, Bill Fisher & Matt Hedman
PDF symbolHandout

How big is the Solar System, and how do we fit into it all? The students constructed a scale model of the Earth-Moon system 116,000,000 times smaller than the real thing. This model demonstrated that the distance to the Moon is huge compared to the average orbital height of the space shuttle (e.g., 3.3 meters vs. 5 millimeters). It also allowed the students to predict the angular size of the Moon. The students then built a model of the entire Solar System accounting for current orbital locations on the grounds at Yerkes. This required another reduction in scale by a factor of 140. This new model not only brought down to Earth the massive distances that separate the relatively tiny planets from each other, but also allowed the students to predict the relative locations of the planets as they would appear in the night sky above Yerkes Observatory.

Measuring the Distance to the Moon
Rich Kron, Jonathan Mitchell, Brian Wilhite, & Sarah Hansen
PDF symbolHandout

This novel experiment successfully measured the change in the apparent size of the Moon during the course of a day. The measured apparent size change, combined with the size of the Earth, was used to determine the distance to the Moon. During a day (or night) when the Moon is visible, the Earth's rotation moves observers closer to and then farther from the Moon. This change in distance between our terrestrial vantage point and the Moon results in a change in the apparent size of the Moon. The students worked out the associated geometry and developed an equation that expressed the distance to the Moon in terms of quantities that they measured (e.g., the apparent size of the moon in pixels). The measurements themselves came from images obtained with a digital camera and a telephoto lens mounted to the 24-inch telescope.



Godzilla Geometry a.k.a. Distance Ladder
Randy Landsberg, Mark SubbaRao, Takemi Okamoto & Dan Holz
PDF symbolHandout

In this laboratory, the Space Explorers climbed a local distance ladder with a digital camera, a model Godzilla and a golf flag. The first part of the lab involved empirically determining the relationship between apparent size and distance for known objects at known distances (e.g., 1/r). This knowledge was then used to determine distances and sizes of other local objects (and proper perspective for a monster movie!). Finally, they employed this understanding of the relationship of apparent size and distance with images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to climb an extragalactic distance ladder extending 6.5 billion light years into the early universe.

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Testing our Model of the Solar System
Andrew Puckett, Charles Brass

Based on the predictions of the Solar System model constructed during the day, the Space Explorers developed a detailed observing schedule that predicted when and where each planet was expected to rise and set. The students asked themselves: Which planets will be too far away to be seen? Which will be lost in the glare of the Sun? Are there any planets that will only be visible in the early morning hours? They then tested their predictions by observing planets with binoculars and telescopes, confirming their relative positions and noting their primary features.

Satellite Parallax: Measuring the Distance to Nearby Objects
Jonathan Mitchell, Takemi Okamoto & Brian Wilhite

Have you ever noticed how objects that are close to you will seem to shift from one side to the other if you look through one or the other eye? This is due to parallax, which is defined as the apparent shift in the direction to an object due to a change in the position of the observer. The size of the shift is depends on both the distance to the object and the change in the observer's position. In this lab, the students attempted to measure the distance to a satellite orbiting the earth by measuring its parallax. This measurement requires the detection of an apparent shift of a few arcseconds with two telescopes spaced about a half kilometer apart. Astronomers can measure the parallax of nearby stars using this technique. However, because of the enormous distance to the stars, astronomers use telescopes on satellites spaced the equivalent of 6 1/2 times the diameter of the earth! (Although the actual measurement proved too challenging, the students learned how to operate a remote telescope and how to locate satellites.)

Distance Ladder
Vivian Hoette, Matt Hedman, Sarah Hansen, Dan Holz

During this lab, the students used the principles of size, scale and distance that they worked with during daytime laboratories to study astronomical objects. The students used the 24-inch telescope to take images of various objects such as the star clusters and galaxy shown below. (More images are available on the photos page.) With the help of Hands-on Universe software they were then able to measure how big these astronomical objects appear to be on the sky. Finally, assuming similar objects are all roughly the same size and brightness, the students were able to construct a distance ladder and determine how far away these objects are.

Two Images from the Distance Ladder lab
Globular Cluster NGC 6229. Click on image for larger version. Andromeda Galaxy

Introduction  •  Daytime Laboratories  •  Nighttime Observations  •  Instructors