Did you know that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy? It’s also 40 years since man first stepped on the Moon. Because of this, in my recent school visits I’ve seen a lot of teachers undertaking projects based around Earth and space. (Incidentally, as a child of the 1960's, I feel really old seeing this period studied in school as 'history'. Don't worry, Kristen - the 70's will be next!) I loved teaching about space when I was teaching. It was a great topic to develop pupils thinking skills and spark their imagination and creativity. The topic of space is ideal to utilise a range of rich ICT resources. I wanted to share one in particular. When I show this to teachers, they always ask two questions: where can I get it and how much is it?

The 'it’ I am referring to is Microsoft Worldwide Telescope (WWT), available at www.worldwidetelescope.org .

Worldwide Telescope Overview

WWT is described as ‘a Web 2.0 visualization software environment that enables your computer to function as a virtual telescope—bringing together imagery from the best ground and space-based telescopes in the world for a seamless exploration of the universe.’ Or to put it in simpler terms, the biggest visual playground of discovery that you could give your pupils.

Worldwide Telescope allows you to bring stunning visuals of the universe directly into the classroom. Pupils are able to interact with and explore the universe through terabytes of digital data collected and stitched together by the software.

There is so much great imagery in this application that the possible use in the classroom is endless. In terms of knowledge and information, it has everything you would need to meet the needs of the national curriculum. The visuals of the planets are stunning; they can be explored in 3D and pupils can ‘fly’ from one planet to another, discovering the order of the planets and their orbits. They can control this navigation in real time, so they can ask questions such as ‘What was the position of the planets on a birthday?’ or ‘What date will the planets all be in alignment?’

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More advanced activities can be based around the electromagnetic spectrum, with astronomical phenomena able to be viewed as infrared and x-rays, as well as visible light. This is an astrophysicists delight!

Another great feature of WWT are the guided tours. Created by the development team and scientists from NASA, these give you tutorials of how to use the various functions of WWT, as well as detailed descriptions of deep space objects and phenomena. The best part of this feature is that pupils can make their own guided tours, using any of the imagery in WWT and adding their own commentary and even music.

Capture1 Stitch

With this being the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, WWT has a wealth of imagery from the Apollo missions, including some panoramas of the scene that astronauts saw when they first set foot on the moon. This is a great stimulus for some creative writing or recording audio to accompany the imagery. If you use this in your lessons with footage from the actual moon landings, you are able to give your pupils a great learning experience.

But, I haven’t yet answered the second question teachers ask, which is, how much does this great resource cost? Well the answer is, absolutely nothing! Amazingly, this resource is completely free. At this point in my presentations, teachers usually gasp and quickly write down the download URL, www.worldwidetelescope.org