Seeking asteroids, finding more

This is a story about the power of looking at things a little differently.

It features some high school students, their teachers, and a few high-power scientists. Key props include computers, the Web, a telescope, and asteroids (at first). The setting is the vicinity beyond Mars, aiming away from the sun.

The denouement was the discovery last month of a previously unknown Kuiper Belt object - an icy body about 100 miles in diameter left over from the formation of the solar system. The discoverers were 11th- and 12th-graders at Northfield (Mass.) Mount Hermon School, members of teacher Hughes Pack's astronomy class.

Their work is a lesson in the wonders of hands-on learning. The process of finding the object, now known to us as 1998 FS 144, wove new webs of collaboration and made the most of new tools.

Mr. Pack was a developer of Hands On Universe, a project supported by the National Science Foundation that has now trained hundreds of teachers. His students received images transferred by computer from the Supernova Cosmology Project at the University of California at Berkeley. They became an extra sets of eyes on vast amounts of data. They got experience that brought texts to life. Their observations were verified by students in Oil City, Pa., and professionals tagged the object, bringing the known total of Kuiper Belt objects to 73.

Lots of insight made this story happen. Teachers saw a new idea. Effective use of the Internet and today's fast computers opened the universe to new viewers. Students saw how to put theory into practice and join a borderless team. They're sharing their work on the Web (astronomy. geecs.org). And they're keeping their eyes open.

* E-mail newcomba@csps.com

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