West Virginia Pulsar Search Collaboratory Underway

Rachel Rosen and Maura McLaughlin (West Virginia University)

Figure 1

(Photo B. Saxton)


The Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC), a joint program between NRAO and West Virginia University, held its summer workshop this July. Green Bank hosted 15 teachers and 35 students from West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The workshop taught science teachers of all disciplines astronomy to use in their classrooms and engaged high school students in astronomy by teaching them to search for pulsars.

In 2007, Sue Ann Heatherly (NRAO) proposed a program to help West Virginia high school students search for new pulsars. She, along with Maura McLaughlin (WVU), Duncan Lorimer (WVU), and Scott Ransom (NRAO), applied for and received 200 hours on the GBT during the summer shutdown for the Pulsar Search Collaboratory project. Around the same time, Sue Ann, along with Co-PIs Maura and Duncan, were awarded an NSF ITEST grant to fund the Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC) project. This grant provided for the hire of a project manager, and in May, Rachel Rosen, a recent PhD recipient from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, joined the team. Rachel will spend 50% of her time over the next three years managing the PSC project and 50% doing pulsar-related research. In addition, Don McLaughlin, a research associate in the computer science department at WVU, and his master's student, Terry Yun, joined the project to help process the data, organize the results, and develop an interface for the students. Don's cluster at WVU is processing some of the data using software designed by Scott, and Terry developed an extensive graphical database to help students access the processed data and quantitatively analyze it. Taylor Johnson at NRAO has been instrumental in creating the look and feel of the PSC database website (http://psrsearch.wvu.edu).

The first two weeks of the workshop were solely for the teachers. At their respective schools, the teachers taught a wide range of subjects, including biology, physical science, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. As astronomy was new to many teachers, they had an intensive astronomy mini-course, led by Maura and Duncan. The mini-course laid out the fundamentals of radio astronomy with a focus on pulsars. In addition, the teachers participated in various activities, including exercises in inquiry-based instruction, techniques in observational radio astronomy, and analysis of pulsar data. The teachers also received 12 hours of GBT time and Vlad Kondratiev, a postdoctoral researcher at WVU, assisted them in follow-up observations of new pulsars.

The students joined the teachers for the third week of the workshop. Since the teachers will integrate the astronomy concepts they learned in the mini-course into their classrooms during the academic year, the students received only a basic introduction into astronomy. The teachers led most of the workshop this week, including activities on the electromagnetic spectrum, quiet skies, and the use of collaboratory software for communication. Ryan Lynch, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, taught the students (and the teachers the previous week) how to interpret pulsar plots and to distinguish potential pulsars from RFI. The students were trained to use the pulsar database and to quantitatively evaluate pulsar data. Vlad taught the students the basics of observing with the GBT, and then they had the opportunity to use the GBT to observe pulsars and acquired more 350 MHz drift data. By the end of the week, the students were proficient at distinguishing pulsars from radio frequency interference and noise, and presented posters and talks on their work.

As the school year is starting, we are helping the teachers incorporate everything they learned at the workshop into their classroom while simultaneously meeting the science education standards set forth by the state of West Virginia. The teacher-led activities are designed to engage their students about pulsars and encourage them to join the PSC. By mid-October, we hope the PSC will be fully operational, with teams at each school actively searching for pulsars. The culmination of the PSC for this year will be a workshop at WVU for the high school students where they will have an opportunity to present their results. The feedback from the teachers and students from this summer has been extremely positive and we are looking forward to working with the students throughout the year!