Science & Technology

Innovative project brings the universe to UWF and beyond

From the sparkling stars of constellations to the outer reaches of our galaxy, humans have long been fascinated by the wonders of outer space. The pursuit of exploration and knowledge were the driving forces behind an exciting LEAD: The Staff Version team project recently unveiled at the University of West Florida.

LEAD, which stands for leadership, enhancement, activities and development, consists of two year-long programs – one for staff and one for faculty – to help enhance their leadership skills, build relationships across campus and develop strategies to help them grow as leaders and team members. The programs are sponsored by the Office of the Provost and directed by Dr. Athena du Pré, Distinguished University Professor.

Each LEAD: The Staff Version class selects, researches, plans and implements a project to benefit the University community. Last August, the Class of 2023-24 surveyed faculty and staff for team project ideas with the greatest potential impact. From that process, the class selected a joint endeavor with the Department of Physics and the Hal Marcus College of Science and Engineering to pool their financial and talent resources and purchase and develop outreach programs for a new telescope. The Department of Physics had been without the use of a high-powered telescope for several years after their previous one was damaged in a storm and eventually broken down.

Their collaboration resulted in Stargo, an EVSCOPE 2 immersive smart telescope with enhanced vision technology, a smart solar fitting for daytime viewing of planets, the moon and sun, and the ability to observe deep sky objects. Stargo not only provides viewing for the primary user, nine additional users can connect to the telescope on their mobile devices via an app and viewing events can be live-streamed for star gazers everywhere on platforms such as YouTube.

Dr. Aaron Wade, associate professor of physics, said the Department of Physics and the Society of Physics Students have wanted to make astronomy and astrophotography a focus at UWF for several years now. “Unfortunately, funding has been tight and resources have been needed for course offerings. Without this LEAD class, Stargo would simply not be with us today.” 

Senior engineering physics student Teddy Al-Bayaty jumped at the chance to give Stargo an early test run. “Using Stargo feels like having a powerful, personal gateway to the cosmos at my fingertips,” Al-Bayaty said. “Unlike the traditional telescopes I’ve handled before, this telescope is incredibly easy to set up and use. Within seconds, after just a few clicks in an easy-to-navigate app, the telescope automatically moves to the object I select from the catalog, and I’m immersed in images of celestial objects that would’ve taken me hours to locate in the sky.”

Wade and his students will take the telescope to local K-12 schools to promote a love for science and STEM learning and host Stargo viewing events on campus that are open to the public. 

Brett Haskell, LEAD member and School of Nursing clinical placement coordinator, said the most appealing aspects of the Stargo project were that it will be a powerful tool for UWF faculty and students, and that it will connect with community members in such meaningful ways. “The idea that we could hold events that will allow so many people to learn about and see celestial bodies was incredible.”

The LEAD class hosted an unveiling event for the UWF community on April 8 at the Center for Fine and Performing Arts adjacent to the “Constellations” outdoor sculpture. The event took place during a total solar eclipse which appeared as a partial solar eclipse in Florida. Attendees were provided solar eclipse protective eyeglasses, light refreshments and opportunities to view the eclipse utilizing Stargo at the event. 

An eclipse happens when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, blocking the face of the Sun. The next total solar eclipse will take place in 2044.

Following the unveiling event, Stargo was relocated to its new home in the UWF John C. Pace Library on UWF’s Pensacola campus. Students and faculty who have been trained on how to use the telescope can go to the circulation desk to check it out, making Stargo more accessible to the University community.

Heather Seitz, LEAD member and senior coordinator of career education in the Office of Career Development and Community Engagement, is passionate about the lasting impact of the project. “I hope Stargo inspires people to keep exploring and questioning about what is still unknown.”

du Pré said she is very proud of this LEAD class. “The genius of their project is that it unites the campus and the community in a learning adventure together. What a beautiful legacy for this remarkable group of leaders!”