Extending Operations of Yerkes Observatory

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On March 7th, 2018, the University of Chicago announced the intention to “cease operations” at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Their stated deadline of October 1st, 2018 gives just 6 months for a concerned staff and community to work with the University on a transition plan, which the University admittedly does not have. The vague initial statement raised alarm for all involved. The University’s failure to collaborate with Yerkes prior to the public release of their statement has led to the haphazard and ineffective attempts to create a controlled and well-coordinated transition strategy.

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We the undersigned are concerned that there is no outlined direction in which the University plans to take this transition. As a result, we cannot reasonably be expected to place faith in the intentions of the Board of Trustees. This being the case, we propose our own three-part plan to create a shared vision which will lay the foundations for a successful transition.


The following are the action items put forth and agreed upon by the #saveyerkes team and the signatories:

1. The extension of the October 1st deadline to 1/1/2020
2. Existing activities, programs, and functions will continue uninhibited on site at Yerkes Observatory preceding and following the originally proposed October 1st, 2018 deadline.
3. Current staff of Yerkes Observatory, in order to assist with the construction and implementation of a successful transition plan, will remain employed through 1/1/2020.

Please consider showing your support with a signature. We feel that doing anything less than giving the time, resources and fairness of a properly planned and executed transition of operations would be an enormous injustice to the monument of history, education, and community that Yerkes Observatory has become.

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In the initial statement released by the university, and in subsequent planning that has taken place in recent weeks, a hard deadline of October 1st, 2018 was set. Established in alignment with the turn of the University of Chicago’s fiscal year, this deadline fails to take into account the adverse effects such a time constraint might have not only on the observatory and its staff, but also on the countless lives the observatory has touched. We assert that there is no sense in placing such a fast-approaching deadline on this vital process. If ownership has not been transferred by October 1st, the University does plan to end operations as we know them today, and focus their efforts on transitioning the property. The transition of operations to any entity is one that requires sufficient time and consideration.


We propose a transition date of 1/1/2020 in order to provide a successful and sustainable transition despite the University’s unpredictable terms. These factors being considered, the proposal to move this deadline is one that comes with a cost, but if the University truly seeks a partnership in the transition with the observatory and community at its forefront, extending the time deadline only makes logical sense. Yerkes and its staff require ample time in order to craft, uphold, and ultimately implement a successful, smooth, and productive transition.


This deadline extension would provide both the observatory and the University 18 months in which to locate and discuss specific details with a new entity in preparation to take over operations of Yerkes. The additional time allows for the upholding and preservation of the monumental historical context of the observatory.

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Though history continues to be a large part of the work done at Yerkes, today the observatory aims to make strides in education research and public outreach by crafting programs relevant to the increasing importance of STEM education. While this might not be the astronomy research that put Yerkes on the world stage in the 20th century, it is still real and meaningful, developing student researchers well-prepared for future academic careers. Each existing Yerkes Education Outreach (YEO) program provides a unique experience for its participants. Often regarded as the birthplace of modern astrophysics, the observatory is also the birthplace of ideas that are reshaping the way the world looks to and accesses our universe.


Skynet Junior Scholars (SJS), which got its start in YEO, has expanded, and is being utilized by schools and 4-H clubs around the country. This program allows students to use research-grade telescopes located around the globe to take images and get authentic and meaningful data from deep space objects. Yerkes even hosts two of the telescopes found on this online network. SJS has fostered programs that have lasted until the present day that have bridged the gap between historical research and the need for collaborative education in STEM.


Yerkes, in addition to its public outreach for local schools, has developed a special relationship with the Wisconsin School for the Deaf (WSD). Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Deafblind students who attend the school receive opportunities they would not normally have in their own school districts. YEO staff work with interpreters to build skills in signing high level English terms that have no American Sign Language (ASL) counterpart. Working with a variety of partners, students have changed how the DHH community engages in the language and vocabulary of astronomy, adding dozens of signs to an international sign language dictionary of Science and Astronomy terms.


Awarded a 2.5 million dollar NSF research and development grant, IDATA (Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy) merges schools and organizations in an unprecedented three-year collaborative effort to develop an astronomy image processing software accessible to the blind and visually impaired (BVI). IDATA engages both BVI and sighted high school students and their teachers at a national level. In collaboration with UChicago and other university undergraduates, teams in educational research and consulting, and a plethora of other innovative minds, the project seeks to break barriers by abandoning traditional education and design techniques to create innumerable possibilities for all, regardless of vision. The ability to study, discover, and marvel at all astronomy has to teach us is made available with the accessibilization done by IDATA.

 

The McQuown Scholars program engages high school students in real, hands-on research, using the Stone Edge Observatory (SEO), a remotely operated telescope in Sonoma, California. Data students obtain using SEO provides a sense of ownership. Though projects are guided by Yerkes staff and professors, students are free to explore in any direction their data leads them.


Summer camps provide the chance for local elementary, middle, and high school students to participate in one-of-a-kind week-long camps at Yerkes which revolve around a central STEM theme. From flying and programming drones to late-night observing sessions using telescopes campers build themselves, Yerkes allows these memorable experiences to stay with students long after their time at the observatory has come to a close.


All efforts displayed by students involved in education outreach programs are showcased nearly every month at public star parties hosted by the observatory. These create excellent opportunities for everyone to learn, regardless of astronomical knowledge. Visitors from all over the world journey to Williams Bay for an unforgettable night of learning about constellations, tactile astronomy, deep space objects, and much more. Along with seizing the opportunity to observe the dazzling night sky Yerkes has to offer, each experience provides a unique window into a profound understanding of our universe. From navigating and touching the stars to traveling back into the time machine that is space, star parties draw a variety of people. From children with burning curiosity and enthusiasm in their eyes and hearts to adults who still follow the whims of their inner child, the observatory immerses them in the life-altering grasp of space and its ability to change our perception of our place in the cosmos through firsthand experience. Programs like these have become an integral part of what Yerkes offers local students and families in and around the Lake Geneva area.


The success of these programs is evident in the differences they have made in their students: participants engage in real research with mentors guiding them along the way. These programs are entirely crafted and maintained by Yerkes staff, who provide support necessary for student success. It would be beneficial to all parties to create, in partnership with Yerkes, sister programs both in Chicago and with other organizations given the knowledge, expertise, and reach of the Yerkes team.

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There is no viable way Yerkes Education Outreach programs can be relocated to the campus of the University of Chicago. The loss of said staffed programs in any way, be that by defunding or relocation or both, would prove detrimental to area students, families, and the community as a whole. The irreplaceable programs, partnerships, insights, and discoveries Yerkes continues to present to those who experience its magic must be upheld, leading up to and extending beyond the impending deadline of operations secession on October 1st, 2018.

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The emblem of Williams Bay depicts the dome of Yerkes Observatory behind the picturesque waters of Geneva Lake. That dome is more than just a representation: it has been an irreplaceable part of the village of Williams Bay for over a century, a cornerstone of community and astronomy, and invokes in its stakeholder a strong sense of pride. Yerkes is not part of Williams Bay, it is Williams Bay. This historic landmark and the value it brings a town, a region, a state, a nation and a world is unparalleled.

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