October 30, 2003

Arecibo Reaches Out to Community

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Nearing its 40th anniversary, the Arecibo Observatory is pushing to improve science and technology education for the Spanish-speaking world. The observatory, located in Puerto Rico but owned and operated by Cornell, features the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope — a 1,000-foot-diameter bowl built into a valley.

Although Arecibo already has a visitor center and an adjacent learning center to educate visitors, the observatory’s operators hope to go a step further. The facility has recently created an Office for the Public Understanding of Science (OPUS), directed by David Altschuler, a former director of the observatory.

“OPUS will act as an umbrella, using the facilities we already have,” Altschuler said. “We already do quite a bit, but the main limitation for us is resources — human and money-wise. OPUS formalizes our effort.”

Altschuler said OPUS will initially focus on bringing educational efforts to Puerto Rican schools. He cited ideas such as a mobile radio telescope for hands-on experience and a program to express scientific ideas via the theater arts, both offered to students in Spanish. He emphasized that the volume of scientific and educational material available in Spanish needs to be increased.

“Generally Hispanics are underrepresented in science and technology, and we have four million right here,” he said. “These projects — especially if we find them successful — can lead to replication nationwide. This is a national center, and we have a large Hispanic population not only here but also in the US,” Altschuler added.

Prof. Robert Brown, director of Cornell’s National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), which operates Arecibo, agreed that OPUS will need to start locally. “Then we will propose these programs to the [National Science Foundation] for funding and support,” he said, adding that programs could expand to the continental U.S. as well as South and Central America. “The opportunity to make an impact is big.”

According to Brown, Arecibo was originally built in Puerto Rico because of its location and geography. The radio telescope, which looks like a giant satellite dish, was built in a valley flush with the terrain. The dish can be used as a passive receiver, recording images of radio signals from space much as a normal telescope records images of visible light. It can also broadcast radar back into the atmosphere to study its response. The NAIC is funded by the NSF to operate Arecibo, since the NSF cannot do so itself. Since Arecibo is a national facility, it is available to any researcher who “submits a proposal deemed meritorious,” Brown said.

Brown noted that Arecibo has made significant strides in public outreach already. He pointed out that the construction of their visitor center was financed entirely by the Puerto Rican government. And according to the Cornell News Service, the observatory operates a summer program for Puerto Rican students and teachers. Sixto Gonz