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TOPS 2001

Carla Brooks, a teacher at Roosevelt High School (left), and Cindi Chambers, from Chattanooga, Tennessee (right), discuss astronomical observations with TOPS Director Karen Meech.

The annual TOPS ("Towards Other Planetary Systems") teacher enhancement program wrapped up another successful workshop at the end of June. This year, 26 secondary education teachers from Hawai‘i, the U.S.-affiliated Pacific entities, and the Mainland, and 20 high school students from Hawai‘i and the Pacific participated.

The teachers spent four days on O‘ahu attending lectures and visiting astronomy facilities, then spent the remainder of the three-week program at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy (HPA) on the Big Island, where they were joined by student participants. A highlight of the workshop was a tour of Mauna Kea Observatories.

This year's workshop marked the third year of support by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Dr. Karen Meech originally developed the program as a one-week workshop in 1993. Each workshop is now three weeks of intensive astronomy training for teachers and high school students.

TOPS emphasizes incorporating astronomy into physics, math, chemistry, biology, and earth sciences classes. Teachers are introduced to classroom tools, techniques, and hands-on activities they can employ in their own classes. Computer skills development, and student assessment and evaluation techniques are also emphasized in the classes for the teachers.

Hands-on training is an important part of the program. Activities range from archaeoastronomy to grinding telescope mirrors. During every clear night, small telescopes are used to observe the sky. Observing projects vary from simple visual observations of the Moon, planets, and nebulae, to deep-sky astrophotography and sophisticated variable star observations using a CCD camera.

The workshops have a profound affect on many of the participants. As one noted in an evaluation report, "Before the workshop, politics [and the lack of] administration support, broke my spirit for teaching and having expectations. This time at TOPS has reestablished and renewed my passion to continue my professional growth.… I am ready to attack the school year with vigor."

Members of the IfA faculty are frequent lecturers for the TOPS program. This year Jim Heasley, Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, Jeff Kuhn, Bob Joseph, Barry LaBonte, Haoshing Lin, and Alan Tokunaga made presentations to the TOPS teachers.

TOPS participants prepare for a night of observing.

TOPS also benefits from a core of volunteers assisting with the workshops. Scott Roland from the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology and Mike Shanahan of the Bishop Museum both volunteered to work with the TOPS teachers this year. Not all of the volunteers are professional astronomers. Amateur astronomers Jim Bedient, Forrest Luke, and Bryant Webster-Schulz of the Hawaiian Astronomical Society have been regular TOPS participants. They assist the students and teachers with the observing projects.

Support for the TOPS workshops also comes from private donations and in-kind support from both the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and the NASA Ames Research Center. For the second year in a row, three staff members from the Astrobiology Institute at Ames worked, at NASA's expense, with the teachers and students at HPA. Gretchen Walker (University of Maryland), the outreach coordinator for NASA's "Deep Impact" mission to comet Tempel 1 worked with the teachers on demonstrations of cratering processes.

Another long-standing supporter of TOPS is Janet Mattei, the director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). Dr. Mattei spends two weeks each summer working with the TOPS teachers and students. She lectures on variable stars, introduces them to the Hands-on Astrophysics exercises that AAVSO has developed, and assists with observing projects.

At the annual TOPS banquet Nainoa Thompson, executive director of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and a former UH Regent, spoke about Polynesian voyaging.

Additional information about TOPS is available on the IfA's Web site at

Caleb Parsons and Victor Kim grind dry ice to make a "comet."