How Undergraduates Can Understand the Universe

This story is featured in the most recent edition of the HPU Magazine. Learn how one faculty member’s mentorship has given students out-of-this-world opportunities.


By Dr. Brad Barlow, assistant professor of astrophysics

The study of astrophysics begs big questions and presents real challenges. There are complex terms and theories, and unlike much of physics, chemistry or biology, we can’t even physically touch the objects we study in astronomy.

In fact, the closest object I have ever studied is a mere 900 trillion miles from Earth. Compared to most other stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, that star is practically our next-door neighbor!

So how then do we create hands-on learning opportunities in astronomy and measure the impact of those opportunities?

There is certainly important data we track – grades, research presentations and publication, and job placement after graduation – all of which tell us we’re taking the right steps.

But there are other things, too, that show you a difference is being made, and students really are being instilled with both an understanding of and passion for the field.

For me, I saw it clearly one day on the faces of Ryan Hegedus, Alan Vasquez and Paddy Clancy.

After hours of stargazing one night in Chile, their calculations told these students they had just become the first human beings to find a rare star system – one that no one else on the planet knew about just yet.

The wonder in their eyes was confirmation for me that we’re achieving phenomenal things in our approach to experiential learning here at High Point University.


A Classroom without Walls

I invited these three physics majors to join me on a summer trip and experience the life of a researcher at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. At an elevation of 9,000 feet in the Andes Mountains, it provided an opportunity for students to gain first-hand experience in a different part of the world.

Our two-week stay in Chile included many adventures like lost luggage, tarantulas and rain.

But the students were dedicated. Using skills they learned in their introductory physics courses, they helped me monitor both pulsating stars, which have brightness that changes from our perspective on Earth, and extreme binary star systems, which are pairs of stars that orbit one another within a few hours.

Using the 0.9-m CTIO telescope and the 4.1-meter SOAR telescope, these students took charge of the work by moving the telescopes into place, obtaining images of our targets, and analyzing the data using software they themselves had written in the Python programming language.

We had a stroke of luck when astronomers from West Virginia University asked for our help in confirming a potentially exciting discovery. They had found what looked like a pulsar – the dead relic of a massive star – orbiting an invisible object in the sky.

While it sounds like something out of a Star Wars movie, our team took a series of very long exposures of this part of the sky and uncovered an incredibly faint optical companion nearby.

Through their commitment to the project and knowledge of the field, they helped discover a low-mass, cool white dwarf star in orbit around the pulsar.

Not only is this a relatively rare find, but we’ll also soon publish our findings in The Astrophysical Journal.

Such an accomplishment was exciting for this small group of undergraduates and will hopefully play an important role in their unfolding academic careers. For me, it was exciting in a different way.


Mentorship Matters

Remember when I said astronomy had complex terms? For the past six years, my research has focused primarily on an area of study known as “asteroseismology” (the seismology of stars).

I have used professional telescopes, some with mirrors 32 feet across, in Australia, Chile, the United States and South Africa to monitor the vibrations of stars and determine their properties. The results of these studies have been published in more than three-dozen peer-reviewed publications and proceedings, and we have presented this work at research conferences on four separate continents around the world.

In two cases, my students and I discovered new pulsating stars that were not previously known to astronomers. One of these, assigned the mundane name “CS 1246,” turned out to be one of the most interesting pulsators ever found within its class of stars. Every six minutes, this particular star grows and shrinks in size by more than 1,000 miles, and its temperature goes up and down by more than 1,000 degrees. The pulsations are so violent that the vibrations themselves are changing the structure of the star and slowly destroying the pulsations. For the first time, we are observing the “death” of this type of pulsating star. 

Ever since my graduate work opened up the joy of discovery for me, my goal in teaching undergraduates has been to transmit that joy to my students early in their education. On that night in Chile, when my three students realized they were the first human beings to find this particular rare star system, they also discovered something else – a new sense of accomplishment and capability.

We’ve been able to take a very hands-off subject and find ways to make it hands-on for students through an approach that’s grounded in mentorship. Why? Because we want them to succeed in a way that creates impact. We believe that the earlier they learn to ask big, bold questions, the sooner they become confident when searching for the answers.

These students convinced me that we’re succeeding.

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