Tom Burns said he knows what questions will come up during school field trips at Perkins Observatory based on grade level.
Aliens for third graders, and black holes for fourth and fifth graders.
Middle school students enjoy their trick questions such as the number of times Neptune could fit inside the sun.
But at the high school level, students start asking more technical questions about the universe such as the life cycle of stars.
“I feel for these teachers, kids come up with these questions that actually require deep knowledge of astronomy,” Burns said.
The director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s observatory, 3199 Columbus Pike, hopes to improve the programs it offers in the future through its partnership with Preservation Parks of Delaware County.
The collaboration plans to raise $3.5 million to improve the accessibility and cosmetics of the 5,160-square-foot facility; and to build a planetarium on the north side, Burns said.
Columbus-based Cramer & Associates was hired to do a feasibility study for the fundraising campaign and is about three-quarters near completion, according to Tom Curtin, executive director of Preservation Parks.
Curtin said his organization was looking to expand its programming without acquiring or building something new. It formalized its agreement with the observatory in January and are reaching out to school districts to expand the partnership. Cur
The observatory wants to “create grade level programs that adapt the message to the specific needs of the audience that are enforced by the state’s (requirements) but also the one’s that are required of any communication between a kindergartner or a preschooler or as opposed to a high school student,” Burns said.
The partnership is the latest step in Perkins Observatory’s history. It was founded in 1923 by Hiram Perkins. The OWU professor of mathematics and astronomy spent a quarter of a million dollars on the project, made from raising hogs for the Union Army during the Civil War. Perkins died before he saw the observatory completed.
The final piece to complete the project was the 69-inch mirror for the original telescope, making it the third largest observatory in the world. Due to light pollution in central Ohio, the telescope’s capabilities to observe deep sky objects were limited and was was moved to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. in 1961.
Perkins Observatory replaced the telescope with a 32-inch mirror version, stationed inside its dome, which can open to the skies and rotate in both directions.
“It is in fact a magnificent telescope to do public work,” Burns said. “… It’s about that biggest telescope that the skies of central Ohio will bear in terms of light pollution.”
Burns, an OWU English professor who has been an astronomy enthusiast for about 50 years, became the director in 1993 and prior to that was a volunteer. He started an endowment to keep the facility running and had raised $1.9 million over a 10-year-period.
The facility runs on a “shoestring budget” with Burns and Don Stevens, technical and program assistant, as the only staff members.
More than a 100 programs are now offered each year at the observatory, much different when Ohio State University ran the facility until 1998.
“They had one public program a month, occasionally astronomers from Ohio State would come up and use the telescope for research but mostly they ignored the place,” he said.
Burns considered it a blessing in disguise when OSU pulled out because it allowed the observatory to realign itself with Perkins’ vision.
“You can think of this place as a place of logic, a place of science, but it’s deeply rooted in the emotions of Hiram Perkins, who, in his will, said he wanted to people come and see the wonder of the universe,” he said.
“The whole point of the Preservation Parks collaboration is to continue to do what we’ve been doing,” Burns said. “… It has been my mission to help people see the universe around in terms of their own lives, in terms of various cultures around the world.”
The observatory will have an open house at 8 p.m. today for teachers interested in the collaboration. Those interested in attending can call the observatory at 740-363-1257.