Caltech: Outreach Program Engages Public High School Students in the Discovery of Exoplanets

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Caltech and JPL astronomers, in partnership with the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO), have launched the Caltech Planet Finder Academy, a new astronomy program that offers Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) high school students the chance to conduct hands-on experiments and learn about the universe and its galaxies, stars, and planets.

The Caltech Planet Finder Academy debuted with a weeklong session in July and will continue over eight Saturdays during the school year. Program participants will tour Caltech laboratories and local observatories, receive counseling on college applications and admissions processes, and apply the skills they’re learning to help scientists search for exoplanets.

Led by professor of astronomy Andrew Howard and members of his research group, participating students gain an understanding of the history and foundations of astronomy. They also learn to code in Python, analyze datasets, identify and detect extrasolar planets, and build their own working telescopes, with designs inspired by Galileo, to measure the distance between Earth and objects in space.

“Local students now have the opportunity to participate in the discovery of planets and to learn about what astronomers actually do and what careers in astronomy are like,” Howard says. Howard serves as principal investigator for the Keck Planet Finder, a new instrument that will be attached to one of the world’s largest telescopes, the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, in order to discover and characterize planets around other stars.

Together with Mitch Aiken, CTLO’s associate director for educational outreach, and Scott Phelps (MS ’89), a Caltech curriculum developer-instructor and PUSD board member, Howard developed activities and lessons that expand on the school district’s science curriculum.

“The thing I enjoyed most was the amount of professionals and students coming in to share their knowledge and experiences,” says Jai Watkins, a senior at John Muir High School. “I’m really interested in astronomy. This week answered my questions about how we identify elements on exoplanets, and now I have entry-level knowledge of Python. I also really enjoyed getting to tour JPL and learning about the rich history between JPL and Caltech.”

While the program is constructed around an educational curriculum, Howard aims for students to gain more than knowledge. “I hope that they come away more with inspiration. When I was in high school, I had a number of important scientific experiences,” he says.” I never ended up doing any of those particular things, but it really showed me that I could be a scientist when I grew up, and that set the stage for my whole career. So, I hope to have that kind of impact on the students too.”

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