Rebecca Johnson

Seventy-five years ago, UT’s McDonald Observatory opened with the mission of studying and promoting astronomy. This year, as part of its anniversary celebrations, the observatory will focus on its history of scientific accomplishments, even as it looks to the future with a search for a new director.

The observatory is offering special events through August 2014 as part of its anniversary celebration. Former observatory director Frank Bash kicked off the year of events with a presentation Saturday night, where he spoke about the observatory’s position at the forefront of scientific exploration. 

“In 1939 McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, north of what is now the Big Bend National Park, was in a remote part of Texas … where the skies are very dark,” Bash said. “It was the frontier. Today the skies are still very dark, and McDonald is still remote. But I picture McDonald at a different kind of frontier today. It’s at the border that separates the surface of the earth from the sky — the frontier that leads into the universe.”

Rebecca Johnson, publications editor at the observatory, said the McDonald researchers are currently focused on the study of dark energy, a form of energy that is believed to be causing the universe to expand rapidly.

“We know the universe is expanding, but we don’t know why,” she said.

Johnson said the observatory is working to renovate its Hobby-Eberly telescope to make it capable of examining more than one million galaxies for the purpose of obtaining information about dark energy.

While the dark energy experiment is moving forward, the observatory is also in the process of looking for a new director, as the current director David Lambert is preparing to retire by August 2014.

“I’ve been the director for 10 years,” Lambert said. “Next year I’ll be the same age as the observatory.”

Lambert said the search for his replacement is ongoing.

During Lambert’s time as director, the observatory discovered the most powerful supernova ever recorded and began upgrading its telescopes to make them usable for dark energy research.

“In my own small way, I’ve helped bring about the [Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment],” he said.

Johnson said the anniversary celebrations will focus on the new discoveries happening in astronomy with a speaker series featuring astronomers across the country. The observatory is also celebrating the past with several news pages on its website including a timeline of accomplishments and an interactive blog for people to share stories of experiences they have had at the observatory.

UT’s McDonald Observatory provided years of astronomy content for Project Share, an online resource for Texas teachers, on Thursday.

Project Share gives Texas teachers access to instruction materials from a variety of sources including museums, universities and newspapers, said DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Culbertson said the agency developed the project two years ago in collaboration with The New York Times Knowledge Network, the PBS Digital Learning Library and Epsilen, an online learning platform.

“There is multimedia content that can be used in the classroom and then there’s other content that teachers can use for online professional training,” she said.

On Thursday UT’s StarDate, a branch of the McDonald Observatory, announced the addition of years’ worth of radio scripts and other content to Project Share, said Rebecca Johnson, editor of StarDate magazine
and spokeswoman.

Johnson said StarDate has produced a two-minute daily radio program for 34 years, providing content related to astronomy such as sky-watching tips and guides to the solar system and constellations.

“In addition to the scripts we also have an image archive, we have some videos, but the bulk of the content are the radio script archives,” she said.

Johnson said StarDate has gathered information and images from interviews, research and a variety of institutes nationwide including NASA, observatories and other universities.

“It’s just a way for us to get our information out to different audiences, to help improve science literacy and to help people understand more about how astronomy in particular and science in general works,” she said.

Culbertson said after applying for Project Share with the Texas Education Agency teachers can access the educational materials for free.

More than 160,000 teachers have already gained access to the online community, she said.

Culbertson said teachers can formulate lesson plans with material provided by different organizations and can also access teaching development courses in the areas of mathematics, social studies, English and science.

Felice Nudelman, executive director of education for The New York Times Company said Project Share uses the portal Epsilen as its primary platform.

Epsilen provides an immersive experience for users through Web 2.0 learning space, online portfolios, interactive video photography and utilities for other content providers, Nudelman said.

“What we’ve done is we’ve created a digital content repository,” she said.

As teachers formulate lesson plans on Project Share a search element uses key words to provide relevant content from different providers that can then be applied in the lesson, Nudelman said.