Twice a week, 10 high school students come to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) for four hours of serious science research that takes them to the outer limits.
With space exploration reaching ever farther frontiers and space tourism attracting increasing attention from investors, these talented teens from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) are witnessing a shift in how science is taught — and much of that is due to the CfA’s Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP).
“The root mission of the Science Research Mentoring Program is to provide high school students with real-life research experience, coupled with mentoring by a living scientist,” said Or Graur, who started the program in September 2017 and is now its director.
“The students get to work on real data using actual astronomical, mathematical, and statistical techniques. That shows them that they can do the work — it’s not rocket science,” said Graur, a National Science Foundation Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the CfA and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “The program shows them that science is not a distant, impossible profession for them.”
From September through May, the students work on independent projects, discovering new ways of learning, researching solutions, designing codes, and unraveling methods to understand and analyze data while examining theories based on scientific findings.
“So far, students have worked on observations of supernovae and planets outside our own Solar System, simulated dynamics around massive black holes, and applied advanced machine-learning techniques to improve the targeting algorithms of an upcoming galaxy survey,” Graur said.
CRLS students Jonas Hansen, Sophia Sonnert, and Tatiana Athanasopoulos have worked on projects involving exoplanets, binary stars, and white dwarfs.
Has that made them feel that they’re ahead of their high school classmates?
“To put it bluntly, yes, most definitely,” said Hansen. “This program provides the bridge between theory and experimentation.”
Hansen described his project as “analyzing a white dwarf star (WD 1145+017) in the Virgo constellation about 570 light-years from Earth” — or about 3.35 quadrillion miles away. The idea and the outline for the project came from CfA Hubble Fellow George Zhou, a postdoctoral researcher who is working with the teenagers.
“The idea is based around George’s current research, and our work is a method of both teaching us and, in a way, helping George to progress further in his own work,” Hansen said. Of special benefit to him and his classmates, he said, has been learning to apply computer programming to real-world research.
Graur said he had worried that, “When you do astronomy, day in and day out, it’s easy to become inured to its majesty and charm,” but Hansen said that despite the volume of concentrated data and the patience required to work through the researchers’ findings, there are plenty of high points to offset the routine.
“Every day has been an adventure,” he said. “Every time my code has been successful — such as successfully producing a flux plot — has been a highlight. Getting the opportunity to work with amazing researchers at the CfA has been a highlight as well.”