Audience previews universal picture

August 11, 2000

Mike Dworetsky examines an innovative project for astronomy students

Southern France, late February, 2000: a small team of British students huddles tensely around the spectrograph control computer on the 1.5m telescope of l'Observatoire de Haute-Provence, 650m above sea level at a dark-sky site 100km north of Marseilles.

Will the sky remain clear? Is the shutter open? Are all the instrument settings correct? Will they be able to measure the spectral lines in their target star and determine its composition by spectral analysis? Is the star normal or peculiar?

This is not a scene from a postgraduate thesis project, but from a new undergraduate teaching initiative at University College London, in collaboration with French astronomers, to give third-year astronomy students a week's experience of observing with the latest equipment at a large professional observatory.

When they return to London, they will spend several weeks at their home observatory in Mill Hill reducing and analysing the data and preparing reports. For all of them, it is an inspiring experience. In some cases it may be the turning point in deciding whether to pursue a postgraduate research degree.

Astronomy and astrophysics have the ability to evoke a sense of cosmic awe and wonder in the young, and many high-ability candidates aspire to further pursue this intense interest at university. Not all universities in the UK teach full degrees in these subjects - most simply include a few course units as optional components of degrees in physics.

This is not surprising, despite the popularity of the subject, because the best teaching practice in astronomy is heavily weighted towards practical training. This requires the establishment of university observatories and makes astronomy (including astrophysics) a relatively expensive subject to teach properly.

Although much of the theoretical and descriptive material required is still delivered in fairly traditional lecture courses, the practical element in astronomy (including physics laboratories) can occupy as much as a quarter of the total course units taken by an individual student. At campus observatories, the emphasis for students is on learning to use small telescopes and various detectors to make their own observations of stars and star clusters, asteroids, the Sun and Moon, planets and their satellites, nebulae and galaxies. They then prepare analyses of data and report their findings. The aim is to achieve competence in the operation of delicate optical and mechanical equipment and to gain experience of writing scientific reports. Initially, observing can be undertaken with the most basic detector, the human eye, or traditional astronomical photography, but some sophisticated hardware, such as detectors, is increasingly available for student work.

More ambitious experiments with larger telescopes, cameras and spectrographs can then be undertaken. The typical student observatory or "astro-lab" has computers available for image analysis for searching the internet for data and bibliographic resources such as journal articles, and for preparing reports. Often, these machines are not running Windows software, but use the Linux operating system and the professional astronomical data analysis packages developed and made freely available by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's Starlink Software project. Advanced undergraduate project work is done once there is a firm grounding in the basics. At UCL, for example, the final-year MSc students in astronomy and astrophysics make use of the experience gained from formal practical work when they perform individual research projects, worth 25 per cent of their final-year marks, under the supervision of a member of the academic staff.

A big headache for teaching practical astronomy in the UK is the weather. A very small number of UK universities now offer the option of an astronomy field trip. For the past three years, groups of 12 UCL third-year astronomy students have travelled with a team of supervisors to l'Observatoire de Haute-Provence for one-week observing runs on two of the large telescopes there, undertaking research in photometry and spectroscopy. The data files are written to CD-Roms and taken back to London, where the students extract the information from the raw observations. This exercise can produce results approaching those seen in the refereed astronomy journals. Southampton and Liverpool John Moores universities also provide field trips to an observatory located on Teide on the island of Tenerife.

Mike Dworetsky is director of the University of London Observatory.

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