Wasilla teacher motivates at-risk kids with area's largest telescope

Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2002

WASILLA (AP) -- For science teacher Tim Lundt, the universe is as close as a small building a few yards behind his classroom at Burchell High School.

From there, just off the Parks Highway, within earshot of dozens of businesses, he can see the distinct rings of Saturn, the vaporous clouds of the Andromeda Galaxy, and details of craters on the moon, down to the rough edges of the hills encircling the depressions.

Lundt's secret? It's not X-ray vision, but a 12-foot telescope that is part of the school's new observatory.

It's among the biggest telescopes for a high school in the country, said Stephen Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society. It is bigger than any at the University of Alaska schools, according to astronomy instructors. UAA has a 7-foot telescope with a 12 1/2-inch mirror, said Donald Martins, a physics and astronomy professor at the school.

The Wasilla observatory is likely the only one in the state open to the public, he said. Residents can use the telescope on Wednesdays and Saturdays, weather permitting.

Lundt didn't get the telescope for its size, but for his students. The observatory, which was finished this winter, is the result of nearly two years of work that started with Lundt thinking about how to engage his students.

The alternative high school is home to many at-risk students like teen-age mothers and those who have dropped out of other schools.

Lundt had already started a popular program to teach biology in which students dissected, boiled, then reassembled skeletons of animals. The skeletons, which include moose, bear, fox, ermine and even a hedgehog, decorate his classroom.

Astronomy was another way to hook the teens, he thought.

''Several kids mentioned they like the stars, and they'd talk about astrology,'' he said. ''I just thought this may be a way to hook them into more.''

He wrote a grant for a portable telescope with a 10-inch mirror. Then he met Jim Egger, a Palmer-area resident whose hobby is building telescopes. Egger told Lundt about the 26-inch Newtonian telescope he had built that had been sitting at Wasilla High School unused for three years. A teacher at the school had been trying to find a place to house it.

Lundt jumped on the opportunity. He cobbled together more than $20,000 for an observatory, including grants from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, the Jordan Fundamentals and a federal program called Alternative Strategies to Suspension and Expulsion.

He also got the community to pitch in. Employees at Weld Air Alaska helped construct the building, and Matanuska Telephone Association donated a cellphone so people could call to see if the observatory is open. Students pitched in too, helping to erect the structure, painting a sign for it and giving it its name: the Stargate Observatory.

In all, Lundt estimated the project cost about $42,000. It would have been much more if not for the donated help, he said.

The observatory, which sits just behind the school, looks like a small storage building. But the roof splits down the middle and slides to the sides to expose the night sky.

The telescope, with a blue canvas cover that shields it from surrounding light, is welded onto a metal frame that spins.

Lundt can also control it with computerized gears that allow him to focus on any part of the night sky. The computer is programmed with more than 13,000 points in the sky, he said.

Never an astronomy buff, Lundt admits he's gotten hooked on stargazing since getting the telescope. He prefers to look at galaxies and objects like the Orion Nebula, which he describes as looking like a big piece of cotton.

''It's just neat,'' he said.

Lundt's students have been wowed as well. Two girls are talking about becoming astronomers, he said.

Although the observatory is near downtown Wasilla, Lundt said the light pollution isn't too bad. A bigger problem are the clouds. So far, he has had only one clear night since mid-December, and then it was too windy to keep the observatory open. The telescope started shaking from side to side, he said.

He hopes eventually to get a video hookup that will allow people to see on a television monitor what the telescope is focused on.

He's also applying for a grant to buy several smaller telescopes so students can take them home to scan the night sky

''It's just one more tool to get them motivated,'' he said.

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