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SCH team presents yearlong research project at American Astronomical Society Meeting

This January, a team of four SCH students and physics teacher Alissa Sperling presented their yearlong, NASA-funded astronomical research at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle.
Sperling had applied to NITARP (the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program), a highly competitive program that offers the opportunity for teachers to get involved in authentic astronomical research. The program selected eight teachers from across the country for the 2018-2019 year, and each teacher is allowed to include up to four students. Based on science teachers’ recommendations and student interest, seniors Kara Kniezewski, Elliott Cunningham, Justin Xin, and Hadley Sager were chosen to participate in this year-long research project and ultimately present at the AAS conference.

“One of the things that I loved at the conference was that the students took advantage of every moment,” Sperling said. “They went to every session they could. They would walk right up to people employed at NASA or people from a radio telescope, and they would extend their hands and introduce themselves and say, ‘Tell me about your research.’ And the students would be able to tell that person about their own research as well.”

“Being a high school student in a massive convention center filled with professors who have taught these subjects for decades was quite daunting at first, but then became much easier after walking around and seeing that I knew a bit about what most people were talking about,” Elliott said. “Due to the preparation that our team did the months leading up to the conference, I was able to understand and enjoy very complex keynote speakers and then discuss them with my team members.”

Sperling and the students’ area of research involved the Spitzer Space Telescope’s archival data. Spitzer is one of NASA’s four great observatories, and the data they were looking at was from 2003-2009, the cryogenic part of the mission. The research team went through the Spitzer Enhanced Imaging Products Catalog and analyzed the images looking for sources that emitted excess infrared light. If the sources have more infrared light coming off than expected, that means that something cool (temperature-wise) is surrounding the object, likely an excess of gas or dust.

“We know things surrounded by gas and dust tend to be in transition,” Sperling explained. “They’re forming or exploding. They’re at some transitional phase of their life, so we were looking for things like active galactic nuclei (where galaxies are formed), young stellar objects, or debris discs surrounding recent explosions.” The team found around 50 sources that are of interest, and now that they’ve identified promising sources, the hope is that one of the next infrared telescopes will focus on these sources to further investigate the objects.

To conduct the research, Sperling and the seniors met on a weekly basis for a year, and they also teleconferenced every Monday with their NITARP team, which was comprised of four teachers from across the country and their students, a mentor teacher, and Dr. Varoujan Gorjian, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Infrared Processing & Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech.

“I really appreciated the friendly yet competitive environment that our research group had,” Justin said. “The weekly telecom that we held between students and mentors kept me on top of my analysis work, but at the same time, the inclusive environment made minor mistakes not so devastating since we would look at the problem and solve it together.”

Beyond the group trip to Seattle for AAS trip this January, Sperling was also able to go to the winter 2018 AAS meeting in Washington D.C., and in June, the whole team took a trip, funded by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the school, to Pasadena for a week to continue working on the research at Caltech. “It was an amazing experience to be able to interact with graduate students, researchers, and professors in this field,” Kara added, who is planning to study astrophysics next year at The United States Naval Academy, “I learned a lot about the life of an astrophysicist, but I also was able to get familiar with the instruments an astrophysicist used as well. It gave me a greater appreciation for the amazing technology we have, which allows us to look further back in time in the cosmos.”

For Sperling, this was also a unique experience to be a researcher for a year and to incorporate real research into classroom practice.

“This has changed my perspective on research in the secondary classroom,” Sperling said. “My question is now what are ways that I can engage kids not just in hands-on laboratory work but also in authentic data-driven research experiences. And for the kids [Hadley, Kara, Elliott, and Justin], this is so far beyond what anyone could expect to do in high school.”

“I will most definitely miss this project now it’s over,” Elliott said. “This was a massive opportunity to do graduate level research as a senior in high school, and I met some amazing students and teachers along the way. I am very grateful I got this opportunity and enjoyed basically every second of it.”