The Skynet Junior Scholar Program lets over 1,400 middle school students in Wisconsin, Virginia, and North Carolina learn astronomy and even conduct astronomical research by controlling professional telescopes in Chile, Australia, and the United States.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill built the Skynet network of robotic observatories to study gamma-ray bursts - the intense blasts of energy from supernova explosions beyond our galaxy. When Nasa’s Swift space telescope or other gamma ray observatories discover a gamma-ray burst, Skynet’s automated systems order small research telescopes in Chile, Australia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin as well as the 20-meter radio telescope at the Green Bank Observatory to capture observations of the explosion’s aftermath. You can learn more about Skynet in the following paper:
Reichart, D.E. “UNC-Chapel Hill's Gamma-Ray Burst Follow-up Program” The Society for Astronomical Sciences 25th Annual Symposium on Telescope Science. Held May 23-25, 2006, at Big Bear, CA. Published by the Society for Astronomical Sciences., p.39 http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2006SASS...25...39R
But gamma-ray bursts only appear once every few days. That leaves a lot of down-time on the network that can be used for other research. Most of the free time is divided among the Skynet partner institutions, but a big chunk goes to support public outreach and education.
The UNC researchers created the Skynet Junior Scholar Program along with the Yerkes Observatory, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the 4-H Youth Development Program. Kids between the ages of five and ten who participate in out-of-school youth programs like 4-H can become Skynet Junior Scholars. They get access to the professional-class research telescopes using Skynet Internet scheduling software. Along the way the kids learn about astronomy and can even conduct research with professional astronomers.
The grown-ups who lead the youth groups must complete the Skynet Junior Scholars Program’s certification process, either at free workshops or through online training courses. The training explains how to control the Skynet telescopes and how to conduct astronomy projects suitable to different ages and experience levels.