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Inaugural Governor’s Institutes of Vermont on Astronomy Challenges Students to Make a Positive Impression

GIV at FMP

The Governor’s Institutes are some of the best educational opportunities for Vermont teenagers in the summer. This year they launched their first Institute on Astronomy in partnership with the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, the Northeast Kingdom Astronomy FoundationLyndon State College, and the Vermont Space Grant Consortium. Their hope was to expose the 25 students who attended to astronomy research and theory, so they pursue college majors and careers in science. Of particular interest was their goal to teach science from original data that was collected at Northern Skies Observatory instead of just exercises in a textbook. Students were introduced to research methods very important to our understanding of the universe. Much of what we know about the science and scale of the universe comes from studying variable stars (stars that fluctuate in brightness), and the students learned how we can take measurements directly from digital images captured with our telescopes.

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The week began with a series of ice breakers and teambuilding exercises to help the participants get comfortable and start to get to know each other. Creating a sense of community is a major focus at every Institute. The students were incredibly inclusive, and even among a group that included quite a few introverts tight friendships formed right away. No one was left out. Every day also included physical breaks like group dancing and energizers some of which were led by the students themselves. The organizers hope was to demonstrate the importance of these types of activities outside academics. Teamwork and collaboration were emphasized all week at many levels, especially when Carthage College Professor Doug Arion turned a common phrase on its ear: “It’s not what you know, it’s who knows you.” This emphasis on making positive impressions on the people the students will encounter in their college studies and careers was highlighted throughout the week.

GIV at LSC solar observing

The students’ first observation of the week was the Sun using special telescopes with proper filters to protect their eyes. Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation educators led the group on the observation terrace at Lyndon State College in what was the first viewing of the Sun for many involved. Students then moved into the classroom to discuss orbital mechanics, and they had a Skype session with Professor Kris Larsen from Central Connecticut State University about her work. With 60% female participants that week, it was a focus to connect them with women who are leading in the field.

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Day two ended with an amazing planetarium discussion with Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium educator Bobby Farlice-Rubio. Students began pondering their end of the week projects and were inspired to think about how far humans have come and how far we will go in the near future. Using the museum’s planetarium as a teaching tool instead of a show is a unique experience that the students loved. The special access to tools including the planetarium and observatory builds upon this incredible community of educators and volunteers to create an experience that would be difficult to replicate anywhere else.

GIV Astronomy Skype with SpaceX launchpad engineer Matt Carlton 3 (1)

The following morning continued with more fun and important teambuilding, an introduction to astrophotography, practice with ImageJ software, and an incredible hour on Skype with SpaceX launch pad engineer Matt Carlton who described his college and career path and talked in detail about his work, his team, and the future of the human quest to leave our planet and explore space using high tech rockets. It was fascinating. Students ended the day at Northern Skies Observatory with perfectly clear skies for observation.

building Galileoscopes with Professor Doug Arion 1 (1)

Day four continued with high level classroom work, and the group hosted an amazing guest. Professor Doug Arion spoke with students for hours about the importance of a diverse undergraduate education, his love for astronomy, his work with sensitive missile technology in the ’80’s, and his Galileoscope company which produces a “high-quality telescope kit created by astronomers, optical engineers, and science educators. Because it is produced and distributed by volunteers, it is available at low cost to support science education worldwide. More than 240,000 kits are already in use in more than 100 countries.” Doug worked with the group to assemble the scopes, so they could each take one home thanks to a grant from SPIE. The day ended with another amazingly clear night of observation at Northern Skies Observatory where the students drove the telescopes themselves finding planets, stars, galaxies, and globular clusters.
building Galileoscopes with Professor Doug Arion 4

The next morning began with Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation Board member Dan Zucker who led a conversation on interstellar distance and scale. Dartmouth Professor Ryan Hickox then discussed his work on super massive black holes and active galactic nuclei. Students spent the afternoon getting out of the classroom and hiking Mt Pisgah with the amazing view of Lake Willoughby. A session introducing photometry closed out the day.

GIV Astronomy hiking Mt Pisgah 2

The final day continued with instruction on how to do a time series and photometry of a moving object – asteroids. A Skype session with UVM undergrad students Haley Wahl and Casey Brinkman brought a conversation about studying pulsars, their college experiences, the history of women in astronomy including Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered the first radio pulsars but was snubbed by the Nobel committee, and the bright future of women in the field. The day finished with project prep for the final lunch time presentation for families.

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The week was packed with learning and inquiry based project time. Students gained an understanding of observational astronomy sufficient to prepare them for college-level activities. They developed an increased sense of what it means to participate in a collaborative, problem-solving community of scientists and colleagues. Instructors taught concepts of astronomy necessary to understand the motions of objects in the sky and to visually navigate the night sky. Students developed the skills needed to take astrophotographic images using a research-grade robotic telescope and the skills needed to process raw images to produce attractive and scientifically meaningful astrophotographs. They gained an understanding of the basic skills needed to use image processing software to make photometric, astrometric and spectroscopic measures of astronomical objects. Guest volunteers exposed them to the types of things that professional astronomers and rocket engineers do to prepare for their professions, as well as the types of activities these scientists do in their professional lives. Students gained an understanding of the tools that astronomers use – CCD cameras, mounts, and basic refractive and reflective optics of telescopes.

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The final presentation for families was inspiring. In addition to displaying their presentation skills, the students’ camaraderie was on full display. They even got up and did some dance moves that they had been enjoying all week. Parents left amazed at the knowledge that their young scientists were able to absorb in such a short time. One parent said “You truly put together a very organized top-caliber program in astronomy, all while having loads of fun. We know this takes a lot of planning and coordination, so thank you again for all of your hard work. It was obvious you ignited new passions and had a lasting impression on the group of students. We are so grateful [our daughter] was able to attend. She was full of stories and excitement the whole way home.” Students created ten research projects in small groups including:

  • Analyzing asteroid light curves
  • Analyzing light curves of RR Lyrae-type stars
  • Spectroscopic analysis of WR stars
  • Spectroscopic analysis of novae and supernovae including the measurement of the blue-shift of the supernova expansion cloud

Some slides from the final presentation show the student work and creativity:

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Students at the Institute came from a diverse range of geographic locations and financial backgrounds in keeping with the Governor’s Institutes’ mission to bring high quality educational enrichment opportunities to all young people who want them. Financial and scholarship support was provided by VT EPSCoR and the National Science Foundation, the Vermont Agency of Education, the Canaday Family Charitable Trust, VT Student Assistance Corporation, AT&T, Hallam-ICS, National Life Foundation, the Windham Foundation, the Vermont Women’s Fund, and many other generous donors.

Information about the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont’s diverse program offerings can be found on their website. In addition to multiple summer Institutes, they also offer winter weekends at Goddard College with several strands on different topics including astrophotography with educators from the Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation. The Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium offers the only opportunity for planetarium shows in Vermont. Daily explorations of the universe take place at 3:30PM with additional shows on weekends.