Astronomy lecturer Dr Simone Scaringi has put in place a new initiative that saw him take his ASTR211 students off to the University of Canterbury, Mt John Observatory on a field trip during the mid-term break. The students were able to experience life as observing astronomers. We dig deeper into his inspiration for the initiative and the approach he took.
Q1. Where did the idea for this new initiative come from?
The idea started off from a few things. First, I thought that, given the opportunities that the University of Canterbury Mt. John Observatory (UCMJO) provides, it would be great if students would benefit from what is essentially the only professional observatory in New Zealand.
Second, I was inspired by a course which I took as a second year student in the UK, and later helped as an assistant on the same course, where a group of students was taken to the Canary islands to use the telescopes there for a few days. I remember being fascinated when I first got to the observatory at the time as I knew that not many people actually got the chance to use those telescopes. With this course I am hoping to transmit at least some of that fascination I first had.
Q2. You took an interesting approach where students identified what they wanted to achieve? Tell us more about why you approached the initiative in this way.
Yes, the students had to identify upfront what they’d like to achieve. During the first term, they had 2x2hour lectures every week. During those lectures they were taught the basics of observational astronomy, how telescopes work, how the sky moves during the night and how to find a specific target, how the imagers work, etc…
They were also told they had to prepare an “observing proposal” to be handed in before the actual field trip. Doing this ensures that they have thought (or at least tried) a) what object(s) they want to observe b) what science questions they hope to answer and c) how they will go about taking the data. We had three telescopes available during the field trip, and all had different strengths and weaknesses.
To optimise they scientific return and be able to succeed, the students had to think about the technical details of each of the telescopes and identify a) which one they required and b) how much time they needed. The good thing with this approach is that once they got at the observatory, they already knew what to do (more or less!) and could get on with observations from night one.
The other factor that got me to adopt this approach boils down to the fact that there are lot’s of different targets in the night sky (stars, galaxies, nebula, and so on). Each student might have a favourite type of object, and with this approach they are free to choose their own favourite targets to study, hopefully making them want to understand them better, do good science, and make the whole learning experience more enjoyable.
Now we’re in the second half of the course, and students are busy analysing their data. They also need to submit a report, give a presentation, and prepare a poster which they will hang-up and I’ll organise people from the department to come and have a look (hopefully with pizza involved too). The whole point with the course is essentially to “recreate” the life-cycle of an observational astronomy research project: 1) write a proposal to ask for telescope time 2) reduce and analyse your data 3) write a paper 4) present your results at a conference through a talk an poster.
Q3. What proved to be the best part of the field trip for you?
A few things. The first I guess, given that this is the first time I’ve ever run something like this, is that overall it worked! No one complained, got hurt, or started crying (working 12 hour night shifts for several nights in a row might do that to you).
The second great thing for me was actually seeing some of the students being enthusiastic about the opportunity, and really into their projects, sharing their ideas with other students and being eager to look at their “fresh” data soon after it was acquired. Overall I think some students were more keen than others (to be expected I think), but I am confident that everyone learned a good set of skills during the field trip, which I hope they’ll find useful elsewhere too.
Last, we got lucky, and were the first group to find a new “star” in the sky. This discovery resulted in an Astronomer’s Telegram (a published short letter discussing new findings that might require immediate attention from other astronomers around the world). Obviously, all students were authors on this. If you need more info about it let me know. The ATel can be found here.
Thanks to the students of this course for their photography.