The sky’s the limit – pioneering physics project inspiring pupils reaches milestone

Monday 10 June 2024

A pioneering project led by a University of St Andrews academic to help pupils explore the Universe using retired telescope equipment is celebrating the milestone of supporting 100 Scottish schools.

The Plates for Education (Scotland) project, led by Dr Rita Tojeiro in the School of Physics and Astronomy and funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), places retired telescope artifacts from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), called ‘plug plates’, in schools across the country. The project also trains teachers in the schools to use the plug plates in the classroom, empowering pupils of all ages to explore a variety of astronomical concepts such as the formation of stars and galaxies and the expansion of the Universe.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) is one of the world’s largest, most detailed, and most often cited astronomical surveys, and it revolutionised our understanding of the Universe: from the formation and evolution of our own galaxy to the structure and evolution of the Universe. The survey has been collecting data for over 20 years.

Dr Anne-Marie Weijmans, in the School of Physics and Astronomy, who coordinates the documentation and release of the survey data explains: “The ‘plug plates’ original purpose is to capture light information from the sky. Each plate is mounted to the back of the Sloan telescope at the Apache Point Observatory (New Mexico, USA) and captures information from a three-degree diameter area of the sky – the equivalent of the width of two fingers held at arm’s length.

“Each plate contains up to 1000 holes, drilled to be in exactly the right place to collect the light of the required astronomical objects, recording the survey information for scientists to use. The plates each cover a unique part of the sky, and once the data has been recorded in the SDSS database, the plates are no longer of use.”

This prompted SDSS scientists to re-purpose the plates for education and the project began in the USA in 2015. Although SDSS has drilled over 12,000 plates, fewer than 800 have been re-purposed for education all over the world. Dr Tojeiro, whose areas of research are the evolution of galaxies and the large-scale structure of the Universe, and who co-led SDSS Education and Public Outreach between 2016 and 2020, brought the project to Scotland in 2019. The project gives Physics pupils in Scotland practical experience in discovering astronomical phenomena using the same data as professional astronomers.

Dr Tojeiro explained: “Each plate tells the unique story of a small part of the sky. Schools who participate in the programme are given a plate to keep and teachers are provided with training and guidance for using the resources. These include activities to investigate the nature of the objects in their plate, their distance from us, and key curriculum concepts such as redshift. Our resources are appropriate for students across a wide range of ages and abilities, and teachers tell us they use them across several year groups, science clubs, and community events.”

The plates are now in schools across Scotland, from Dumfries and Galloway to Shetland with plans to expand to the rest of the UK. The Plates for Education team estimates that around 2000 Scottish pupils used the plate in the classroom or in a science club at their school in the last year alone.

Drew Burrett, a Physics teacher at Stewarton Academy in East Ayrshire, explains the benefits of the programme to his classroom: “Participating in the Plates for Education Program and having an SDSS plate in my classroom has had a very positive impact on my teaching of Space across all levels. Being able to link such a striking object to the work of the SDSS project and the wealth of data that it has produced helps to build links between the tangible object in the room and the galaxies observed vast distances away. Using the data available for each of the objects surveyed helps to reinforce learning about spectra, redshift and the expanding Universe.”

Dr Paula Miles, from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, has been working to understand the impact of the plates on pupils and teachers. “The goal of the project is to spark an interest in Physics in pupils all over Scotland, giving them hands-on experience of astronomy, and hopefully encouraging them to consider studying STEM subjects. Feedback from our partner teachers tells us that pupils love getting the chance to use the plates as they feel connected with science in a way that wouldn’t be possible without the plates. The impact on teachers is also clear. Teachers tell us that the plate has changed the way they teach the space topic in the classroom, and that they themselves feel more connected to Physics and contemporary science.”

To celebrate the milestone of supplying 100 Scottish schools with this unique resource, the Plates for Education (Scotland) team has set up a virtual symposium with teachers in the programme to share experiences and discuss how the project can be extended to reach even more pupils.

For more information on the project, or if you wish your school to be included, please contact: Dr Rita Tojeiro ([email protected]).

Image: Plate in use during a classroom activity where students use Hubble’s Law and other curriculum concepts to make a model of a giant 3D constellation (Credit: R Curtis, Smithycroft Secondary School).

Science and Technology Facilities Council
The Science and Technology Facilities Council is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring, and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including in the UK the ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR, and is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.

STFC enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). STFC is one of seven publicly funded research councils. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT).

Jake Hepburn Press Officer, STFC RAL Communications Science and Technology Facilities Council Tel: +44 7557 317200 Email: [email protected]

Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Funding for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey V has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Participating Institutions. SDSS acknowledges support and resources from the Center for High-Performance Computing at the University of Utah. SDSS telescopes are located at Apache Point Observatory, funded by the Astrophysical Research Consortium and operated by New Mexico State University, and at Las Campanas Observatory, operated by the Carnegie Institution for Science. The SDSS web site is
SDSS is managed by the Astrophysical Research Consortium for the Participating Institutions of the SDSS Collaboration, including Caltech, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Chilean National Time Allocation Committee (CNTAC) ratified researchers, The Flatiron Institute, the Gotham Participation Group, Harvard University, Heidelberg University, The Johns Hopkins University, L’Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam (AIP), Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie (MPIA Heidelberg), Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE), Nanjing University, National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC), New Mexico State University, The Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the Stellar Astrophysics Participation Group, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, University of Arizona, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Toronto, University of Utah, University of Virginia, Yale University, and Yunnan University.

Jordan Raddick
Institute for Data-Intensive Engineering and Science
Johns Hopkins University`
[email protected]

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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