Students at Glenelg Country School will soon be able to use a recent gift to explore worlds they may have seen only in textbooks.
Yesterday evening, the school celebrated the opening of its new space observatory with a research-quality telescope.
In 2000, three children of Kingdon and Mary Gould, who founded the school in 1954, donated the $35,000 instrument in their parents' name.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly stated the number of individuals who donated a telescope to Glenelg Country School. The nine children of the school's founders contributed to the purchase.
The Sun regrets the error.
Nearly three years later, Glenelg Country has completed two small structures to house the telescope on its campus in western Howard County.
More than 700 students attend Glenelg, an independent private school where tuition ranges from $7,300 for prekindergarten to almost $15,000 for senior high school.
With the telescope, the astronomy curriculum evolves from a textbook-based class to a lab-based one, said Alexandra Cha, a mathematics and science teacher who directs the observatory -- the only one of its kind in Howard County.
Cha, who is in her second year of teaching at Glenelg, earned her doctorate in astrophysics at the Johns Hopkins University studying the interstellar medium (the gas and dust in between stars).
Generally, people are limited to learning about astronomy through educational films or trips to the Maryland Science Center at the Inner Harbor or the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, she said.
Although those are good resources, "It's hard to tell the difference between what's real and what's art," Cha said.
Most Hubble Space Telescope images, for example, are composites shown with enhanced colors.
"To see the actual colors -- it's a really meaningful experience," Cha said.
Glenelg plans to integrate the telescope into the curriculum in all the school's grades, she said. Although the middle and high school students will be using it in math and science classes, the school will incorporate the program into the language arts, music and art classes of younger children, she said.
"We're trying to use the telescope as sort of an inspiration piece" for the lower grades, Cha said.
She plans to offer lessons using the telescope this spring, but the new curriculum will start in the fall. Students will also work with Applied Physics Laboratory scientists on projects.
The observatory will be open on particular nights for students and classes, Cha said. Glenelg is also working with the Howard Astronomical League to arrange opportunities for the public to use the telescope after the school program is established.
"There really is an unlimited amount of ways we could incorporate the community," said Richard Orr, a parent of two Glenelg students and member of the Howard Astronomical League.
Most students want to look at planets, Cha said.
"It's pure curiosity," she said.
The 150 mm refracting telescope will be able to meet those desires and more. Lenses in its barrel refract -- or bend -- light, magnifying objects more than 600 times, she said. Other telescopes use mirrors to gather and focus light from distant points.
Students will be able to see Saturn's rings and the red spot on Jupiter, Cha said. The only deep space object she's been able to see thus far is the Orion Nebula.
A solar filter will be used during school hours to examine the sun.
Older students -- or those who hit a growth spurt -- will have to duck to enter the low doorway of the corrugated steel structure that houses the telescope. The dome of the building rotates 360 degrees to enable viewing in all directions, Cha said.
Students will be able to use four computer workstations to collect data, such as the brightness of stars.
Glenelg's pastoral location is ideal for stargazing, Cha said, allowing viewers to see fainter objects than could be detected in urban environments.
"We have pretty dark skies in Howard County," Cha said. "Columbia doesn't make that much light pollution."
Although the Morris W. Offit telescope at the Hopkins' Homewood campus is more powerful, she said, users must contend with light from the surrounding city.
The school finished its primary school building in January last year, before construction of the observatory, which cost $100,000. Glenelg is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $13 million to build a new athletic center and an addition to the upper school, increasing the capacity to 300 students, said Julia Knudson, alumni and special events coordinator.
Knudson said Glenelg hopes to complete the new buildings by next year.