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Physics Students Get Close-up Look at World's Largest Steerable Radio Telescope

A Reinhardt College physics class recently traveled to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where they toured and got a close-up look at the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope -- one of the premier astronomical instruments in the world. Scientists from around the globe use the telescope to study virtually all types of known astronomical objects, from planets and comets in this solar system to quasars and galaxies billions of light-years away.

Assistant Professor of Physics Dr. G. David Moore led the group of 10 students to Green Bank, W.Va., where they stayed from May 13-19. "It's an outstanding facility, and this really was a science experience for the students," Moore said. "What I told them was that you'll be working at the edge of your knowledge, literally just like scientists do, and your team is charged with trying to understand what you're seeing.

"Students are given a lot of information that they have to convert to knowledge, and they're not given the answers. This isn't an answers course; it's one where they need to figure it out. There was some frustration with the students, but frustration leads to knowledge."

The Physics 298 course covers basic astronomical observation and during the trip, students were divided into two teams and assigned specific observing schedules on a number of galactic radio sources. They had 24-hours-a-day access to the observatory's 40-foot telescope, sometimes using it early in the morning or late at night. A great amount of data was collected, which the teams shared. Each team prepared a technical presentation of the data it collected and analyzed. Students also visited the facility's new Catching the Wave science center and took part in daily classroom sessions that reviewed information they needed to conduct their work.

"The classroom presentations are not just on their project," Moore explained. "We go through the Big Bang theory and talk a lot about 'What is science?' For me, a definition that grew out of this course is that the universe is the way it is, regardless of what you think about it, and it is revealed to us the way it is through science. You always have something to test your opinions against -- science helps us understand the way the world operates."

Several students in the class learned that things people typically assume to be true actually took extensive research.

"The trip was such a neat experience because it was very non-confining," said Susan Harden, a senior early childhood education major from Jasper, Ga. "We weren't confined to very particular parameters; we were free to explore things in whatever direction we felt we needed to go to find answers.

"I think probably the most critical thing that I came away with was a real understanding of the fact that the things we so often take for granted, from science textbooks or whatever, are really very hard-earned facts. We just think because somebody says things are true, they're true. What I realized most from the course is that people work very diligently and face a lot of obstacles coming up with the conclusions that later are so easily accepted in science. So, I came away with a much deeper respect for the work of scientists and the truths that we accept."

Daniel Jape from Woodstock, Ga., a senior general business major, described the course as a really great experience. "Personally, I really enjoyed it," he said. "Overall, I thought it was really really fun to learn to understand a little more about the universe and what's around us that a lot of times we take for granted on a day-to-day basis. Dr. Moore always kept challenging us, which was half the fun of the trip."

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