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Arecibo Observatory program takes aim at Hispanic audience by promoting science and education in Puerto Rico

ARECIBO, P.R. -- The world's largest single-dish radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory is focusing on a largely Spanish-speaking audience by creating an Office for the Public Understanding of Science (OPUS). It will be headed by a native of Uruguay, Daniel Altschuler, who is stepping down as director of the observatory, a post he has held for the past 12 years.

"Being located in an environment populated by 4 million Hispanic U.S. citizens places the Arecibo Observatory in a very special context," says Altschuler. The aim of OPUS, he says, is "to be a leader in the efforts to improve the public understanding of science, in particular in respect to the Hispanic community, which is underrepresented in the fields of mathematics, science and engineering." OPUS will do this through specific program proposals to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Office of Informal Education and other initiatives

Arecibo Observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, a national research center operated by Cornell University under a cooperative agreement with the NSF.

The author of a recent popular book on astronomy, Children of the Stars (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Altschuler has long been an advocate of education and public outreach, known as EPO, on Arecibo. He was, for example, project leader for the construction in 1997 of the Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor Center at the observatory. Since then, more than 750,000 visitors, about one-third of school age, have taken part in its educational program.

With the construction of an adjacent facility, the Learning Center, completed in 2001, it became possible for the observatory to host scientific and technical workshops and to hold a series of residential science-teacher workshops, which to date have attracted a total of 300 teachers from Puerto Rico public and private schools. This year the NSF awarded a grant of nearly $600,000 to the Arecibo Observatory and the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo to establish a three-year program to provide Hispanic students on the island with experience in conducting scientific research. And every summer the observatory hosts a 10-week student program for students and teachers from Puerto Rico.

This is just a beginning, says Altschuler. "There has been a frustrating lack of progress in the public's understanding of science. Clearly, there is a need to review current efforts and to seek new strategies to reach the general public. OPUS will strive to find ways to accomplish this."

Astronomy, he believes, is an ideal vehicle for an effective science program. "Without doubt, it is of great popular appeal and one of the few sciences (if not the only one) that have a great number of amateur associations in most countries, with popular astronomy magazines published in many of them. This is partly due to the fact that astronomy can be pursued as a hobby with readily available instrumentation, and a good deal of it is relatively easy to understand. Because it is an ancient science, practiced in one form or another by all societies, it is part of the cultural heritage of many societies, independent of context and national boundaries. It is not difficult to present many scientific topics within an astronomical framework, including the history of science and scientific methodology, while simultaneously addressing such pseudoscientific topics as astrology and alien visitations," he says.

Since 1979 Altschuler has been a professor of physics at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. From 1976 to 1978, he was assistant professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Interamerican University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla. He was a visiting scientist at the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy, Germany, from 1985 to 1987. He earned his bachelor's degree at Duke University and his Ph.D. at Brandeis University.

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