Observatory coordinator Ron Schmidt shares the skies with students at the school and also with the public several nights a month during open houses. He’s been working here for nearly 10 years, and recently realized that a change needed to be made.
“The year I started, we had a birthday party out here for me and brought the family up to show them my new office. But by that time, cancer put my mom in a wheelchair,” said Schmidt.
There is an elevator in the observatory to help people get upstairs. But once you are next to the telescope, it’s still a few more steps up to get to the eyepiece.
“So mom sat, and of course she’s being mom and just, ‘Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ But it did give me the idea that, you know, if we’re going to have access, let’s have access. And if the eyepiece is way up here, We don’t have access for everybody,” said Schmidt.
So he got to work. He got in touch with a friend of his at the Minnesota Astronomical Society, and they started brainstorming ideas for how to extend the telescope’s eyepiece. It took a few tries. But now, the observatory has a relay scope.
“It’s actually two telescopes looking at each other. So taking the view from where your eye would be, pushing it out the front of a telescope. On the other end of the tube is a telescope that picks up that view and pushes it back to the size that comes out in your eye.”
Schmidt was recently able to put it to use for the first time.
“We brought some students up here – students that are in a wheelchair – and they were able to make it up here easily and look through the telescope and it was just a treat to be able to share that with them.”
It was also, Schmidt says, a good experience for the students.
“The word ‘awesome’ was used a lot and one of the lads said, ‘I have no words.’ So we got wrapped up. I started to walk them back into the school and the kid that had no words found some and he turned around and said, ‘I think I want to be a science teacher. Maybe even teach astronomy.’”
Schmidt says there’s something magical about the experience of seeing something for yourself, and its meaningfully different that just looking at someone on a computer monitor.
Many observatories can share what the telescope sees through a video monitor and the Jackson observatory can do that as well.
“And that’s what the relay scope provides. We’re not just handing them a postcard and go and see, isn’t it pretty? But we’re actually providing an experience where they can connect with the stuff out there,” said Schmidt.
It’s about creating equity and making educational opportunities more available to all students.
“There are enough challenges in this world that block you out of things that prevent opportunities for you. And if we can clear out some of those roadblocks for people and make it available to them, then there’s a whole other world of possibility for them,” said Schmidt. “It’s just a little accommodation, but it’s one that includes everybody now. And now there’s not a, an exception to coming up to the observatory.”