Caltech, JPL, James Webb Space Telescope astronomers and the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach (CTLO) presented a wonderful week-long astronomy program for 24 PUSD high school students July 10-14.
By Scott Phelps
PUSD students participating were, from CIS Academy: Angie Coronado, from Muir: Annika Alva and Edgar Valenzuela, from Blair: Madeleine Harbison, Preethi Sylverson, Ricardo Ornelas and Vanha Hevoyan, from Marshall: Daniel Shopbell, Diego Varela, Garabet (Garo) Marmarian, James Shopbell and Layah Winn, from PHS: Bowie Adamczyk, Cade Garlett, David Partida, Evan Wade, Jonathan Hong, Kelan Adams, Leviticus (Levi) Li, Maria Karapetyan, Nathan Lam, Nolan Romero, Samantha Ryan and Zalea Nunes.
On Day 1, the students learned about what astronomers do and the history of astronomy, observed the sun through solar telescopes, built their own working telescopes and used them to make measurements of distance to far-away objects, and researched the major observatories of the world and made group presentations on them.
On Day 2, the students took a field trip to JPL where they toured the facilities and amongst many stops, observed the long-planned Europa Clipper mission spacecraft being assembled (see photo below). They also visited the spaceflight operations facility or “mission control” and saw the ongoing tracking of various missions by JPL and the Deep Space Network. They concluded the day with troubleshooting of their district-provided Chromebooks in preparation for doing Python coding exercises later in the week, and with research and group presentations on JPL missions of their choosing.
On Day 3, the students learned about and observed the three different kinds of spectra, practiced how astronomers determine the temperature of far-away objects, and measured the spectra of unknown gases and determined their identities. They toured Caltech’s sun and atmospheric CO2-measuring facilities, learned about the radial velocity method for detecting exoplanets and finished by researching exoplanets and making group presentations on the planets of their choosing.
On Day 4, the students practiced using Doppler shifts in spectra to calculate radial velocity and determine properties of an exoplanet like orbital period, orbital distance, mass, density, and temperature. They also learned how to use Python coding and Jupyter Notebooks to process data for the purpose of detecting planets.
On Day 5, the students got to sleep in, and started the program at 4:00 pm. They continued using Python and Jupyter Notebooks to process exoplanet data. They enjoyed a celebratory dinner and attended a Caltech Astronomy Outreach public lecture and guided stargazing with telescopes after dark.
Planet Finder Academy will continue with field trips and exoplanet data analysis work for six Saturdays during the fall semester of the 2022-2023 school year.
The program is led by Caltech Professor of Astronomy Andrew Howard and serves as a Broader Impact component of his National Science Foundation (NSF) Mid-Scale Innovations Program Keck Planet Finder grant. Howard assembled exoplanet researchers and educators to design and share the program curriculum. The team included Dr. Jennifer Burt of JPL, Dr. Cameron Hummels of Caltech, Sarah Jiang, formerly of the Space Telescope Science Institute (managers of the James Webb Space Telescope) and Scott Phelps, adjunct astronomy instructor at the University of La Verne and Mt SAC and former PUSD board member. Additional Caltech staff, students and postdocs and other JPL staff also assisted with the activities, including Dr. Coleen Roel of Caltech who led a tour of Caltech’s solar telescope and atmospheric CO2-monitoring facility, which coordinates and collects measurements of atmospheric CO2 from some 30 locations around the world. The program was coordinated by CTLO’s Associate Director Mitch Aiken.
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