Searching the Radio Skies

Teachers take their students on a search for distant stars

January 18, 2011

By Margie Corp and Sherry Shelley for Stars at Yerkes News

Once dubbed "LGM" (for Little Green Men), pulsars were imagined to be signals from extraterrestrials.  These distant objects are now the target of research for teachers and students at Stars at Yerkes.The Pulsar Search Collaboratory is a program funded by the National Science Foundation between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and West Virginia University.  The Collaboratory's goal is to have students experience scientific research by analyzing data from the Green Bank Radio Telescope (GBT).  ARCS teacher Sherry Shelley, is currently in her second year of training her 8th grade science students from Wilmington Middle School in Wilmington, Illinois to participate in the program.

After the team is trained to read the data from the GBT, they will analyze over 1000 computer-generated graphs, called plots, to help search for pulsars.  For their reward, the team may travel to West Virginia in May to participate in Capstone. Capstone is a three-day event which participating school teams share their data with each other and astronomers. In May 2010, Sherry took the first team of 8th graders who called themselves the Pulsar Busters, This team, now a high school freshmen team, along with the new team of 8th graders is hoping to return to Capstone.

Sherry states her excitement for the project as she has seen the students develop relationships with the other teams from the other states and astronomers from the project. "The extra bonus of this project is that the students are reading real data to help them understand the process of scientific inquiry. The project definitely rubbed off on two members of the Pulsar Busters, who claim they want to become astronomers."

Now, Yerkes Observatory and University of Wisconsin-Madison are participating in the program Pulsar Search Collaboratory West (PSC West).  Last October, high school physics teachers from Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin met at Yerkes for training with the project’s director Sue Ann Heatherly and astronomer, Rachel Rosen. In June, teams will meet at University of Wisconsin-Madison for PSC West’s first Capstone. Good luck to those teams!

View the current article on the Drake Equation written by Sarah Scoles and Sue Ann Heatherly (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) published in The Universe in the Classroom by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.  Click here to access the article.