More students can ‘see the stars’ thanks to Washington-based online platform

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
This graphic from Slooh shows the Milky Way's Doppelganger. 

This graphic from Slooh shows the Milky Way's Doppelganger. 

Slooh

WASHINGTON — Want to discover the planet Pluto in the same way it was originally discovered?

Through a grant made possible from an online platform called Slooh, students from local schools in grade 4 to the university level can do just that, and much more — for free.

The grant, called the Slooh Exploration Grant, is being provided with the goal of helping 1 million students nationwide experience space from their classroom and home computers, using robotic telescopes.

The platform allows students to put themselves in the shoes of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered pluto in 1930, said Washington resident Michael Paolucci, 51, Slooh’s CEO and founder.

“They follow in his footsteps, making exactly the steps Clyde used with a very similar type of telescope,” he said. “They actually see Pluto suddenly appear on their screen and then they get to keep that image, which fits in a poster.”

What is Slooh?

Slooh, which was created in 2003 and is based out of Washington Depot, offers live online telescope feeds of astronomical events.

“Students use robotic telescopes to view space phenomena, capture observational data and engage in gamified learning,” Paolucci said.

To date, the program has reached tens of millions of people, Paolucci said.

“The big benefit is that these students get to control telescopes halfway around the world, collect real data from space, make their own imagery and then they get to manipulate that imagery,” he said. “They get to complete all of these learning activities, which are all built into the platform that teaches you how to explore space.”

Teachers receive extensive training by Slooh’s astronomy team to be able to teach up to 40 students.

Students get their own individual Slooh accounts. They can advance in ability levels through a point system. There are different levels of difficulty that students can progress through, receiving points and a badge upon their completion.

The telescopes, which Slooh owns and operates, “are completely autonomous robotic observatories. They operate all night. They move every five minutes. It is all robotically controlled and remotely serviced,” Paolucci said.

The grant

A teacher from each accredited public school in the US is eligible to receive the rolling grant.

Aside from receiving training to teach their class, grant winners receive a Teacher Champion pack “with an anthology of space book, night watch cap, bracelet, and badge,” said John Boisvert, director of curriculum at Slooh. “Teacher and student accounts have access to Slooh's 10 powerful robotic telescopes at observatories in both hemispheres, the 50 STEAM-aligned ‘Quest’ learning activities, and a private club to monitor student progress and share observations. All of this is valued at over $750.”

Initially, Slooh was intended for underprivileged populations.

“It’s designed for inner-city Title 1 schools — for populations where the kids have no ability to get out of the city, so they never see the stars,” Paolucci said.

With the new grant, however, teachers from schools across the state can get access to Slooh for free.

Paolucci said he’s offering this opportunity to local teachers as a measure of goodwill.

“We want every school in the area, every teacher to know that if they apply for this grant, they will get it,” Paolucci said.

He said he sees space “like a vast and wondrous wilderness” and Sooh is “like a national park with trails and guides.”

“So, people can come onto our platform, use these online telescopes and communicate with all these other people who know and are motivated and inspired to share everything they know about space with each other,” he said.

Slooh is supported by CT Innovations, investors and grant money from the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, and the National Science Foundation.

“Learn best by doing”

Students “learn best by doing,” said Paolucci, as opposed to just reading about something or having someone else show them.

“When you have to go figure out how to get an image of that thing for yourself, you learn things about it in the process — then you have this personalized keepsake in your memory and it locks in for you,” he said.

The uniqueness of Slooh is its sharing capacity, he added.

“With Slooh, it’s the idea of getting people to cooperatively be able to control telescopes together where everyone benefits,” he said.

Paolucci said students who work with Slooh may realize they enjoy the space industry and decide to pursue it as a future career.

Bill Cloutier, a director of the John. J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford, said Slooh is advantageous in that it has multiple telescopes and offers access to the sky to those not fortunate enough to have a community observatory, telescope or dark sky site.

Additionally, Cloutier said Slooh’s flagship observatory in the Canary Islands, and another observatory in Chile, offer a number of advantages, “among them dark skies, clear nights and locations that cover much of the sky in both hemispheres.”

Cloutier added there are so many astronomical events that people miss out on with the changeable weather in New England or that are challenging with our near sea-level location — “hurdles that Slooh overcomes with high-altitude facilities and multiple locations.”

The application deadline for teachers to apply for the grant is Dec. 15. To apply, visit Slooh.org. Teachers must complete a short application, including a brief response about how Slooh will support space exploration for students at their school. To learn more about Slooh, visit education.slooh.com.