Observatory Shoots for the Stars

Holton High School has found an out-of-this-world way to get kids interested in science.

It's housed in a domed building, smaller than most garages. With a click of the mouse, students can send things spinning all around you - namely, a huge telescope lining up with an opening in the roof, to find some celestial object in outer space.

Teacher Mike Ford helped launch the Elk Creek Observatory on the school grounds. It's the only facility of its type for a K-12 school, and it's home to one of the largest telescopes for any educational institution in the Midwest.

The students who work with Ford are doing actual research for NASA. Ford says they're looking at things like active live galaxies and near-Earth objects.

Junior Megan Sitz has been involved with the observatory for two years. She says it's cool to be in school and doing the same work top people at NASA are doing.

With so much going on, the observatory is ready to expand its horizons and build a new home on an 11.5 acre site at Banner Creek Reservoir. Jackson County has already donated the land, and a group is already working to cover the $3.1 million price tag entirely through private donations.

Holton superintendent Dr. Brad Rahe is among those pushing for the Banner Creek Science Center. He says it could be a great benefit for Jackson County economically through tourism, and also for students throughout Northeast Kansas. He envisions students from around the area visiting the center for hands-on lessons in, not only astronomy, but also environmental studies of grasslands, water habitats and birds.

While the overall impact of this grassroots effort excites Rahe, it's the potential for science that has Ford thinking the sky's the limit. He says the number of projects is "infinite, just like the universe." He says the real value of the center is that students are learning what it means to be a scientist and make contributions to science. He says that's something you can't do from a textbook.

Donations for the new science center can be sent to:
Jackson County Community Foundation
c/o Mike McManigal
Denison State Bank
P.O. Box 71
Holton, KS 66436

The Elk Creek Observatory will be open for Mars viewing:
Oct. 29-30, Nov. 1-5
beginning approx. 8 pm each night
Observatory is located North of Holton High School, between the bus barn and the track

Visit the observatory's Web site:
http://www.holton.k12.ks.us/atronomy/elkcreekobservatory