By: Jen Russon
Kyle Jeter knows what it’s like to stand at the top of the world – that is, from a vantage point of 16,500 feet above the atmosphere.
Jeter, who has taught a seniors-only astronomy class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas since 2001, was one of nine people chosen for the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program, or ACEAP this summer.
“Northern Chile is the best place on Earth to study astronomy,” Jeter said, describing the astrophotography he took with his Nikon D-5300. “I captured the Milky Way, this great expanse of sky, the southern constellations. It was just gorgeous.”
His ten-day trip began in Santiago, and took him through the mountains of the Atacama Desert, La Serena and San Pedro.
The ACEAP team, of which he was one of three high school teachers, slept in astronomer dormitories and studied the clear, dark skies of Cerro Tololo. They saw the Alfa Aldea vineyards and got to know one another over food and wine at the Observatorio Astronomico Adino. They visited, among other world-famous observatories, the Gemini and ALMA high site, with its iconic antennas that function as one powerful telescope.
One member of the ACEAP team, Yasmin Catricheo, a professor in natural sciences said that Chileans should feel proud of their country’s nickname: the eyes of the world. She said there were no words to describe the Cerro Tololo Observatory, or CTIO.
“The feeling in your soul and your body is amazing, at least for me, because it was my first time there, and my second seeing the antennas of ALMA. They are so wonderful, all working together to bring us the information we need to study the universe,” said Catricheo.
Like Jeter, Catricheo is also making presentations of why Chile is so important in the astronomy world. As ACEAP Ambassadors, they are expected to.
Jeter will do six more outreach projects. The first was at the Parkland Library, where he spoke to an audience of adults, children, and several former students.
“That was a lot of people for the middle of a Monday afternoon,” Jeter remarked, adding that he hopes to do another outreach talk at the Northwest Regional Library in Coral Springs.
Wherever he speaks, Jeter will address why so many countries, including the United States, should continue investing in advancing our understanding of the universe. Put succinctly by Timothy Spuck, STEM Education Development Officer and a team leader during ACEAP, astronomy connects us all.
“Throughout history, all cultures, no matter their location in the world, have looked up and gazed at the stars in wonder. The basic building blocks that make up you and I, and all life on the planet were created inside the same family of stars,” said Spuck.
When asked if high school students may someday accompany teachers like Jeter on an ACEAP trip, Spuck said he wouldn’t rule it out. “The expedition is a special experience, and some places like the ALMA high site require precautions to be taken. At this time we are not planning for a student version.”
Jeter could appreciate the risks. “I knew at that altitude, I was in a place that normal tourists just don’t go,” he said, adding that his best night was a frigid one in Cerro Tololo.
“It had been a treacherous drive up the mountain and my truck got stuck in a snow bank. I put gloves on; got it out.”
June is the start of the winter season in Chile, which meant that Jeter and the rest of the ACEAP team had to prepare for bitter cold – which, in non-existent humidity, can literally take your breath away.
“With my nose aerator on and an oxygen tank strapped on my back, it felt like I was the closest to Mars I’ll ever get,” the veteran science teacher mused. Jeter, who is 47-years-old, grew up in the post-Apollo era.
“At that time it looked like we might go to Mars – but by the time I reached high school that thought had drifted away. I studied physics in college, and took just one astronomy class, which was actually terrible. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, just that he had no enthusiasm for it.”
Jeter is a polar opposite. When he talks about astronomy, his eyes sparkle. “Seventy percent of the world’s research telescopes will be in Chile in the next few years,” he said, adding that, at present, there are about 40 percent.
He ticks off the names of massive telescopes, some capable of changing scientific exploration as we know it, and revolutionizing education within the next ten years.
“Imagine making your own real discovery, playing a virtual game as you fly through the stars that one of those gigantic telescopes digitally mapped. One day you’ll be able to fly through the universe like it’s a video game,” Jeter said, adding that the next generation of super telescopes can record a whopping thirty terabytes of information.
Jeter was excited to talk about jobs in astronomy, too. “There’s a big mechanical side to it; there are telescope operators, machines to build and repair, so much done on computers. In a control room I visited on my trip there were 6 different computer screens showing data.”
Jeter said one of his goals is a paperless classroom – or close to it. On the first day of school, he plans to give his students a single sheet of paper, listing approximately 140 apps, websites and other resources for amateur astronomers; some of these resources were introduced to him in Chile.
An image that sticks in his head, occurred in a control room at one of the observatories in the Chilean desert. “I saw a scientist studying dark matter – I think when you teach that kind of thing to the students, it makes it more real.”
When students return to Jeter’s class, they will finally get to use the new telescope in the high school garden, built on-site last year. The veteran science teacher of 25 years is looking forward to his 26th as a proud Marjory Stoneman Douglas Eagle. A 2017 Broward County Teacher of the Year, Jeter wants the class of 2019 to know the future of space science could not look more promising.
“In our neighborhood, in own galaxy, we have found 3,000 planets. The holy grail of the astronomy field is to find another Mother Earth,” Jeter added.
Programs like ACEAP teach us that while all unique in our own way, we are connected at our core. Soon, Jeter’s incoming seniors will appreciate that, and who knows what they might find up there.