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Engineering professors to utilize Green Bank telescope in K-12 teacher research experience

Image of Green Bank Telescope

Green Bank Telescope

When a group of teachers from four West Virginia counties get asked what they did on their summer vacation in fall 2017, they will have an out-of-this-world answer, thanks to a grant received by a research team from West Virginia University.

Natalia Schmid and Kevin Bandura, faculty members in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, have been awarded a grant of $577,815 from the National Science Foundation that will allow them to team with the WVU Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology and the Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank to create a research experience for teachers. The program—Digital Signal Processing in Radio Astronomy—will provide high school teachers with hands-on experience using high-quality, open source software development tools, in both research engineering and educational settings.

Through a six-week summer program, and academic year follow-up, the teachers will gain experience in the research, design, development and prototyping of digital signal processing techniques and applications targeted for the next generation of radio telescopes. DSP computing power allows much of the information that is crucial to radio astronomy—i.e., beam forming, imaging, radio frequency interference mitigation and wide-band high-resolution spectroscopy—to be done in real time. The chance to conduct that research at Green Bank, home to the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, is icing on the cake.

“Teachers will work in small groups to complete one of two research projects, which they will continue with interested students when they return to their classrooms in the fall,” said Schmid. “Teachers will also collaborate with project staff to develop digital signal processing classroom projects that involve an entire classroom of students in DSP activities.”

For the first project, teachers will develop a neutral hydrogen spectrometer for radio telescopes.The systems will then be used on the telescopes at Green Bank to observe hydrogen from the Milky Way.Participants will then devise the rotation properties and inferred mass of the Milky Way and compare that to the known mass of gas and stars in order to illustrate the presence of a “dark matter” component that dominates the dynamics of galaxies.

In Project Two, teachers will process large datasets to search for radio transients.They will develop tools using data recorded from previously detected fast radio bursts—or FRBs—to enhance and automate future searches for transients.While the exact nature of FRBs is still unknown, they are currently believed to be of extra-galactic origin.Efficiently finding more bursts will unlock their cause and may enable the use of FRBs to probe the universe.

According to Bandura, three cohorts, each composed of 10 high school teachers, two graduate students and undergraduate students, will be engaged in a shared learning community, over the three-year course of the project.

“Our goal is to prepare teachers to implement DSP projects with their students, thus exposing them to exciting STEM career opportunities, which we hope they will one day pursue,” Bandura said.

Collaborating with Schmid and Bandura on program implementation are Richard Prestage and Sue Ann Heatherly from GBO.

Teachers will be recruited from school districts involved in Project Lead the Way, including the Greenbrier, Mingo, Mineral and Marshall county school districts in West Virginia. PLTW, a nonprofit organization that provides science, technology, engineering and math curriculum and professional development opportunities to K-12 teachers, is a perfect fit for this program, said Robin Hensel, assistant dean of Fundamentals of Engineering at WVU and PLTW West Virginia affiliate director.

“This type of research experience engages teachers with real-world data, expands their science and engineering knowledge, builds their confidence in a new skillset and increases their excitement for the work that scientists and engineers do,” said Hensel. “They bring that confidence and passion into the classroom as they teach and inspire their students.”



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