Educational Research in Radio Astronomy
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Green Bank, West Virginia
Educational Research in Radio Astronomy (ERIRA) is a one-week summer program that I founded in 1992, and that I have coordinated each year since. ERIRA takes place at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Participants begin the week by learning how to use Green Bank's 40-foot radio telescope (pictured below), which we have exclusive use of for the entire week. Then, working in five teams of three, the participants map most of the Milky Way and a few extragalactic and solar system regions of interest, using the 40-foot and data acquisition software of my own design. Since the 40-foot is a transit instrument, this requires about three days of almost round-the-clock observing. Participants then produce false-color images of these regions, again using software that I have written. From these images, they "discover" supernova remnants, stellar nurseries, other galaxies, and quasars, as well as solar system objects like the sun and the moon.
Meanwhile, the participants begin work on smaller, more research-oriented projects. These projects usually include:
- producing a "true-color" image of Andromeda's disk and estimating its rotation speed and mass
- measuring and interpreting the changing fading rate of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A
- detecting Jupiter and showing that it cannot be a thermal source
- constructing an antenna to detect Jupiter's moon Io crashing through Jupiter's magnetic field
- measuring the mass of Jupiter using robotic optical telescopes in Chile and elsewhere
- measuring the rotation curve and mass distribution of the Milky Way using the 21-cm emission line of neutral hydrogen
- producing a "true-color" image of a portion of the Milky Way
- measuring the surface temperature of the moon
- deep imaging of the Orion Nebula and the North Polar Spur
- constructing antennae to detect Perseid meteors
- using the 40-foot to predict sunspot numbers and other measures of solar activity
- constructing an antennae to detect and study solar flares
- constructing a 2-meter radio telescope that is good enough to detect the sun
Typically, each participant selects two or three of these projects. Unlike the mapping project described above, participants are responsible for the design of these projects and their observations. However, typically six coordinators are always on hand to help. All teams present their results in an informal, yet multimedia, setting on the final day.
Meanwhile, participants attend a crash course on radio astronomy, which I teach, as well as special interest talks (in past years, I have done SETI and the archaeoastronomical properties of Stonehenge), research talks, and "Dan's Famous Backwards Walking Tour" of the observatory (pictured above), which includes the construction site of the Green Bank Telescope, the world's largest fully steerable telescope. Participants also have the opportunity to observe with optical telescopes on clear nights, before Green Bank's famous pea-soup-thick fog rolls in around 2 a.m.
As you have probably guessed, the participants -- as well as the coordinators and staff -- get very little sleep. This is particularly true the night before final presentations. However, this is completely voluntary and a reflection of the enthusiasm of our participants. As the week progresses, I often find participants sleeping in the lounge, which is where we do most of our work, instead of walking 10 seconds down the hall to their beds. They tell me that they do not want to miss anything! Despite sleeping very little the last few nights of the program, nearly every participant can be found awake the final night of the program, after the program has officially ended. They will watch movies, play pool or ping pong or cards, or simply talk, most of them right up until they have to leave the following morning. On more than one occasion, I have had participants tell me that ERIRA was one of the best experiences (and in one case, THE best experience) of their life. Also on more than one occasion I have had participants pursue degrees in science after ERIRA when they had not planned to do so previously. As an educator, I cannot imagine a more rewarding experience than my one week at Green Bank each year.
Participants are selected on the basis of enthusiasm first, and background in astronomy and science second. This makes for a diverse and highly-motivated group. Typically, three fourths of the group consist of undergraduate astronomy and other science majors and one fourth of the group consists of very enthusiastic high school students. On occasion, we also accept very enthusiastic adults (i.e., people with real jobs). Participating institutions have included the University of North Carolina, the University of Chicago, the Ohio State University, the University of Wyoming, Furman University, the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and a variety of high schools, including Ridgewood High School (Norridge, IL) and Bradford Area High School (Bradford, PA). ERIRA can be taken as a credit course at the University of North Carolina.
Participants stay with the visiting astronomers in the observatory's residence hall, and they eat with the astronomers in the observatory's cafeteria. The rooms are air conditioned and very nice (sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, soap, etc. are provided). I assign each participant a roommate of the same gender, and if space is limited I may assign three to a room. (The number of participants that we can accept is set by the number of rooms the observatory has available.) Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, room, board, and transporation from Chapel Hill are all paid for. Recreation facilities include pool tables, a foosball table, an air hockey table, a ping pong table, a weight room, a swimming pool, and more. Laundry and emergency medical facilities are also available.
The 40-foot is 3/4 of a mile from the residence hall. Participants can either walk or ride bicycles that are provided by the observatory. We also have access to the observatory's 1969 checker cab, green and mean.
ERIRA is in a state of continual growth. In 1997, Andrew Stephens became a coordinator. He introduced spectroscopy to ERIRA, which has improved the program considerably. In 1998, Walter Glogowski became our first high school coordinator in many years. He has introduced instrumentation to ERIRA, which has also improved the program considerably. Our other coordinators are Josh Haislip (2006), Dave Moffett (2007), Kevin Ivarsen (2008), Aaron LaCLuyze (2009), Justin Moore (2009), and Brad Barlow (2010).
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