New MPS observatory lets students reach for the stars

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) held a grand opening for a new astronomical observatory at Hall STEM Academy on Nov. 9. The event was attended by NASA Astronaut Raja Chari, Hall Principal Sherrill Lindsey, MPS Superintendent Rochell Cox, members of the school board, politicians and other community members. 

MPS noted that the observatory is the only one of its kind to be located inside an elementary school. “This observatory is part of what we’ve been envisioning about a physical manifestation of what a STEM education can be in Minneapolis Public Schools,” Lindsey said.

 “STEM means science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and I cannot think of a better way for that to come to fruition—thinking about how we can have a relationship on Earth with outer space and what that can mean for our children.

“I’m so proud that Minneapolis public schools has made this wonderful investment in North Minneapolis,” Lindsey added.

Cox called the unveiling a “top 10” moment in her time as superintendent. “We know that we have the next astronaut in our midst right now—the sky’s the limit for our students,” Cox said.

The new observatory is a two-story dome built on top of Hall’s old staff lounge. Mark Job, the executive board president of the Minnesota Astronomical Society (MAS), said the observatory includes state-of-the-art telescopes that can see deep into space.

Job said he saw the Andromeda Galaxy when he tested the facility. “We have plenty of power to be able to see lots of stars, lots of nebulae, lots of galaxies.”

The observatory was to be open for use during the grand opening, but the rainy weather prevented the use of the telescope. Job said MSA partnered with MPS to pick out what equipment and telescope would be the best fit for the observatory.  A 5” refracting telescope and a 14” reflecting Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope were chosen for the observatory. 

“I don’t think [MPS is] aware of what they have yet,” Job said regarding the quality of the facility. “Someday we’re going to teach them to use it. It’s going to be a process.”

Chari, who is currently training to land on the moon as part of NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission, spoke with and took photos with children who came to the unveiling.

“This is the age where that spark happens,” Chari said. “My mom has pictures of me as a five-year-old dressed up as an astronaut.”

Chari said he and other NASA astronauts do a lot of school visits, but this was the first time he had been to an observatory in an elementary school, noting that other NASA employees asked if there was a “mistake” when he told them where the observatory was located. Chari believes the young generation will be the first humans to reach Mars. 

“We’re answering some fundamental questions about science and the universe, so I think that starts here,” Chari said. “The access you have to the stars and galaxies with a telescope is way beyond anything we’ll ever get to in our lifetimes, so I think this gives kids the actual hands-on understanding of what’s out there and engages them.”

Lindsey is hoping to eventually make the facility available for use by other schools and to open it for rental to interested groups in the public. She also hopes to partner with astronomy students from the University of Minnesota and Metro State University. As part of their partnership with MPS, MAS will be using the facility to conduct research. 

Lindsey also hopes the observatory will ultimately be run entirely by MPS students looking to go into astronomy, who would independently choose how to use the facility to further their education.

Lindsey said that Hall wanted to “double down on any experiences we can get” for students after losing so much of their childhood to the pandemic. She noted that the observatory serves as a novel way to approach the natural world that students in an urban district would otherwise not have access to.

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