This description is an updated version of the first presentation of the Astronomy On-Line Programme, published in June 1996. It now includes more details about the various features and the practical realisation of the Programme. Note also that some of the activities will become available at an earlier date than originally foreseen.
Astronomy On-Line is the first large-scale attempt in the world to bring together pupils from all over the world to explore challenging scientific questions, using modern communication tools both for obtaining and for communicating information.
The programme is a collaboration between the European Association for Astronomy Education (EAAE) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It is sponsored by the European Union (EU) via the European Commission (EC) through its Directorates XII (Science and Technology) and XXII (Education) and will take place in conjunction with the 4th European Week for Scientific and Technological Culture in November 1996.
The active phase of Astronomy On-Line begins on October 1, 1996, and reaches a climax in the period November 18 - 22, 1996.
In Astronomy On-Line, a large number of school students and their teachers from all over Europe and other continents as well, together with professional and amateur astronomers and others interested in astronomy, will participate in a unique experience that makes intensive use of the vast possibilities of the World-Wide-Web (WWW). Although the exact number of participants will not be known before mid-November, it is expected to run into the thousands. The size and scope of Astronomy On-Line will contribute to make it an important media event, especially in Europe.
Through the WWW, the participants will `meet' in a `marketplace' where a number of different `shops' will be available, each of which will tempt them with a number of exciting and educational `events', carefully prepared to cater for different age groups, from 12 years upwards. The events will cover a wide spectrum of activities, some of which will be timed to ensure the progression of this programme through its three main phases (see below). It is all there: from simple, introductory astronomy class projects to the most advanced on-line access to some of the world's best telescopes, from discussions with peer groups to on-line encounters with leading professionals.
In fact, Astronomy On-Line will be the first, internationally organised and fully-structured programme which offers a very large number of students the possibility to familiarize themselves with the use of modern communication tools, unequalled possibilities for fruitful international communication, and at the same time to learn much about the science and technology of astronomy, including the scientific methods now being practised by the world's leading scientists. Moreover, they will be able to actively contribute to co-ordinated sub-programmes that will draw on the combined forces and ingenuity of participants from all areas of Europe and in many other parts of the world.
Astronomy On-Line is not just about `trivial' data retrieval or about enhancing the seductive drive into virtual reality. For example, through the possibility of designing and conducting a real observing run on some of the major, professional telescopes, it offers the opportunity of hands-on experience to students even in the most remote areas. In addition, they will be able to `meet' some of the professional astronomers at the participating observatories on the WWW and discuss subjects of mutual interest.
Apart from its astronomical component and the opportunity for students to familiarize themselves with one area of the natural sciences, a particularly fascinating perspective of the project is that it significantly contributes to an understanding of the usefulness and limitations of the communication technologies that will increasingly govern all our daily lives.
There are many other side benefits, of course, such as stimulating schools to go on-line and prompting international cooperation among young people. Another important aspect is that the programme will lead to natural involvement of business and industrial partners in the local areas of the participating groups. Moreover, there is little doubt that its unique character and international implications will be very inviting for extensive media coverage, both in human and scientific/technological terms.
A programme like Astronomy On-Line obviously represents a great challenge to the organisers, and careful planning is crucial to its success. This is ensured by the active participation of experienced educators, scientists and engineers in most European countries, united by the common goal to prepare a well-structured event that is exciting for the students and which has clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all involved parties.
A preparatory meeting of the Executive Council of the EAAE and National Representatives in 17 countries was held in Garching (Germany) on June 15 - 16, 1996. An International Steering Committee (ISC) was established for the programme. The ISC is responsible for the planning of the main activities in Astronomy On-Line and it immediately began its co-ordinating work. Since then, it has met in mid-September to evaluate the progress and to define the further actions and goals.
Also at the June meeting, it was decided that the EAAE National Representatives will set up National Steering Committees (NSC) which will coordinate the Programme in their respective countries. This has now been accomplished in most places. More countries, in particular in Eastern Europe, have joined in in the meantime. It now is expected that nearly 30 European countries will participate.
The NSCs consist of educators, scientists (many with an interest in dissemination of science), representatives of leading planetaria, internet specialists and, in some places, also representatives from sponsors (internet providers, PC hardware suppliers etc.). Most NSCs have good liaisons with their National Ministries (of education).
The ISC has prepared a detailed programme description together with basic guidelines that serve to co-ordinate the work of the NSCs. They in turn provide organisational and technical information (e.g. computer and communication link specifications) to the participating groups, sponsors and supporters of the programme.
The full information is now available on the two central computer nodes of the Programme which are continuously updated as the elements are specified in increasing detail. The Astronomy On-Line WWW Homepages can be reached under:
In most of the participating countries, mirror pages have already been set up which facilitate access to the Programme at the national level.
The first task of the NSCs was to issue a call for participation to interested schools, astronomy clubs and other astronomy-interest groups in their respective countries. This was done during the summer and has continued after the beginning of the new school year.
The deadline for registration with the Astronomy On-Line Programme was originally fixed as October 1, 1996, i.e. the day when the active, first phase of the Programme will start and some sub-programmes will become accessible on the WWW (see below). However, the organisers soon realised that a substantial number of schools with potential participants had practical problems to set up their Internet connections before this deadline. Consequently, the ISC has decided to extend the offical deadline for participation in the Astronomy On-Line Programme until November 15, 1996.
The participating groups may consist of a teacher and his/her students or of one or more astronomy enthusiasts. To be sure, groups of young astronomy-enthusiasts without a teacher are also welcome. In order not to overload the system during the `hot phase', it has been decided to limit access from outside Europe to 50 groups from secondary schools on each continent, i.e. Africa, Asia, Australia (incl. New Zealand), North America (Canada and the USA) and South America (the rest of the American continent). Because of its special relations with ESO, one of the organising institutions, the Republic of Chile is not subject to this quota.
Groups of amateur astronomers in Europe are also very welcome to participate and many have already registrered.
Each participating group must register offically - this is done via the Astronomy On-Line WWW pages. The Groups must thus have access to the WWW. A summary of technical requirements for access to the WWW is available. If access is not yet available at the school, this may be arranged by `sponsors' in the local area. These may be planetaria, science institutes, business undertakings (e.g. in the field of electronics, computers, communication, etc.), industrial firms or private benefactors. The sponsors will be listed on a separate Web-page with the relevant WWW links.
All communication via the WWW will take place in English. Some groups may decide to include participants with particular WWW and language qualifications. However, the appropriate areas of the National Astronomy On-Line Homepages (see below) may of course be in the local language and when communicating with other groups in their language area, the groups are of course welcome to use their own language.
Only registered groups can participate actively. Groups must register with the Astronomy On-Line Programme under a name or a designation and must provide some basic information about themselves (who they are, information about their school etc.). This information is then made available on individual Web pages, both on the main Web pages and on the National Astronomy On-Line Home Pages (see below).
The NSCs have established national computer nodes for the Astronomy On-Line Programme. In many cases, this has been done in collaboration with a national university/observatory or with a (sponsoring) Internet provider. In several places, it has been done in conjunction with the already existing EAAE Nodes.
The National Astronomy On-Line Home Pages have two main features:
2. A mirror of the `ESO Astronomy On-Line Home Page' (which acts as the central `European Homepage').
The preparations for the establishment of these Homepages began immediately after the EAAE meeting in June. With a few exceptions, all National Astronomy On-Line Homepages will be available by October 1, 1996. In addition to their function as carriers of information, these WWW nodes also act as an on-line advertisement for the Programme.
Beginning in late June, the ESO Astronomy On-Line Home Page has been the site of an on-line Bulletin in which news about the Programme and about the preparations in the individual countries have been published at irregular intervals. This function will be taken over by the Astronomy On-Line Newspaper as from October 1, 1996.
As of mid-July, ESO has produced a colour poster which has been distributed by the NSCs to schools, amateur clubs, planetaria etc. This poster is available in English only. Further copies may be requested from ESO (as long as the stock lasts).
From early September, ESO has provided VHS tapes with a specially prepared feature video (PAL/English) that is used to promote the Astronomy On-Line Programme. Beta-SP copies are available on request for interested TV companies and many have already been delivered.
The Astronomy On-Line Programme is based on the concept of a WWW `marketplace' with 'shops' that will be consulted by the participants. The 'shops' will 'open' at specified times, some from the beginning on October 1, 1996, and others later. The `shops' will display a variety of `goods' (activities) at different levels of complexity in order to attract participants of different age groups. The details are now in the process of being defined and the associated Web-pages are being developed in various places. At this moment, the following shops are foreseen:
Information about the Programme as such and the overall schedule. Guidelines and Help facilities. List of participating groups. Links to all related Web sites.
Projects which require observations by many groups, all over the continent, thereby leading to `joint' results. For instance, observations of the Moon and Sun, auroral activity and meteors; parallax measurements of nearby objects (probably of the asteroid Toutatis when it passes near the Earth); degree of light pollution in cities, etc.
Preparation of a real observing programme, to be submitted and executed (during Phase 3) by telescopes at participating, professional (and in some cases, amateur) observatories. The data obtained will be transmitted from the telescopes to the groups via the Web. Reduction and evaluation of data by the groups. Publication of the results on the Web before the end of Phase 3 (see below). It is likely that this 'shop' will open comparatively early, in order to provide enough time for the participants to prepare and submit the observing programmes.
Use of a variety of general astronomical software which can also be taken over for future use at the schools. For instance, ephemerides and orbits, eclipse predictions, etc.
Retrieval of data, available on the WWW at different sites. Images, texts, astronomical data in observatory archives, etc. Thoughtful combination of data will make specific projects possible, ranging from the preparation of an exhibition of astronomical imagery at the school to the solution of more complex tasks. Links to other useful Websites, all over the world. This shop will also include educative `Treasure Hunts' on the Web.
A variety of prepared, astronomical exercises of different level to be solved by the groups.
Talk over the WWW to professional astronomers and educators at participating institutes. Question and Answer sessions, open to all.
Talk over the WWW to other Participating Groups about astronomy and other subjects.
Publication on the WWW of the results of the various activities, etc. Announcements about the Programme and its progress.
Astronomy On-Line will be divided into three phases, lasting from early October to November 22, 1996, and reflecting the gradual development of the associated activities. During this period, a number of special projects will take place, for instance in connection with the Partial Solar Eclipse on October 12, and the amount of information on the Astronomy On-Line Webpages will continue to grow.
During all three phases the ESO Astronomy On-Line Home Page, as well as the National Homepages, will be the anchors and they will serve as the media for international exchange among the groups.
Phase 1 of the actual project will last about six weeks, starting on October 1st, and continuing until about a week before the start of the 4th European Week for Scientific and Technological Culture. It will mark the beginning of the project and lead up to the subsequent 'hot phases'.
During this period, the Participating Groups will have the possibility of preparing themselves for active participation. The time may be used by the participants to familiarize themselves with the hardware and software, to become aware of the potential of astronomical observations and to consider specific programme opportunities, as they become available on the Astronomy On-Line WWW pages. It will also be the time for the groups to begin to communicate actively with each other. This may lead to the establishment of regional clusters or even larger constellations of Participating Groups.
Various activities will become fully available already during Phase 1. This will be announced well in advance, so that the participants may prepare their active participation. Among these are the above mentioned Solar Eclipse project, as well as two projects related to the aurorae and meteors. It is also possible that some astronomical observations with professional telescopes may start already during Phase 1.
Phase 2 will start on Monday, November 18, and last until Tuesday, November 19, 1996. On these and the three following days during Phase 3 (see below), the `active period' will be in the six-hour interval 15h - 21h UT. This period has been chosen to allow students to participate outside the normal school hours, and by taking into account the time zones across Europe (from UT in the West to UT + 2 hours in the East). On these two days, the Participating Groups will interact intensively with each other and consult the available Home Pages for the detailed information about the various projects that has now become available.
Various events will be planned to happen at certain times and in certain places, keeping the programme lively and ensuring continued attention and expectation by the participants. The exact schedule and contents are still to be defined by the ISC and NSCs.
It is not expected that all groups will be `on the WWW' all the time; this will be taken into account for the planning.
This Phase will follow from Wednesday, November 20 to Friday, November 22, 1996 and will mark the climax of the Programme. During this period the participants will continue their work on the various projects and bring them to a successful end. Where applicable, they will prepare their concluding reports. These will be published in the Newspaper.
Some kind of `final event' is being planned on the last day; its exact nature is not yet fully defined.
The results from Astronomy On-Line will remain available on the established Home Pages for a while, and the main conclusions and statistics will be summarized by the ISC in a written report to the European Commission. The EAAE Working Group on Research on Teaching will evaluate the Programme and submit a detailed report at a later stage.
It is quite likely that some groups will not be able to make full use of the proposed activities during the limited duration of the present Programme. However, it is of course possible to use the offered information, programmes, exercises, etc. in the classroom, also after the formal end of this Programme.
Astronomy On-Line is a complex programme and it serves as a pilot project that is expected to pave the way towards a more permanent network of astronomy educators. While such a network will undoubtedly have a particular importance for the future work of the European Association for Astronomy Education, it may also constitute a useful basis for the subsequent development of a more global tool.