Orcas Christian School has operated for nearly 10 years on the San Juan Islands in Washington with an enrollment of nearly 80 students. Tom Roosma, now principal at Orcas, received a Don Keele Award in 2000. The money was used to refurbish a telescope, and purchase computer equipment for the school's observatory.
“Our telescope is really four scopes in one,” says science teacher Ron Claus. “The smaller scopes on the sides are used to locate a specific area in the sky and then the main telescope is used to view the area at high magnification.”
Ron explains, at such high magnification, numerous factors can make it difficult to get a clear view of the heavens. Even under perfect conditions the constant rotation of the earth on its axis means stars will quickly move through the field of view on a stationary telescope. Viewing the same portion of sky for an extended period of time requires slight, but continuous, adjustments to the telescope.
Once an object is identified, the telescope’s computer takes over, making the necessary movements follow it through the sky. In addition, the computer contains a database of celestial objects and can automatically align the scope to locate points of interest for amateur astronomers.
Thanks to the added technology, Ron and his students are able to maximize the capabilities of the telescope. “I’m not an astronomer,” says Ron, “but the computer allows us to easily locate various stars.” The computer system also gives Ron the opportunity to connect the observatory to a variety of science classes. “The computer can also detect the luminosity [brightness] of a specific star and locate other stars with the same luminosity,” he says. Since the chemical composition of stars is one of key factors in its luminosity, chemistry students can use this process to study the presence of various chemicals in the universe.
The observatory is available to the community as well. Each year, Orcas Christian School holds a sleep-over for students. One of the activities offered is stargazing at the observatory. In addition, the facility is available during monthly open house programs.