Ivy Daugherty works each summer at a YMCA camp near Emporia. Her favorite time is the weekly camp-out at night, when the Kansas sky opens, the galaxy is on display and she can tell stories.
“It really impresses the kids … when you’re pointing out the Big Dipper and they’re in so much awe that you know all of this stuff about space,” Ivy said. “I’ve always thought stars were cool.”
Daugherty, a sophomore secondary physics education major, is one of four Dorothy & Bill Cohen Honors College students taking part in an international astronomy research program this semester. The program involves a remote observing research project using several remotely controlled telescopes to study variable stars to determine galactic distances.
Most stars don’t change their brightness. Those that do are called “variable.” Their luminosity varies, in most cases, because of an object passing by or because they pulsate.
The group meets each Wednesday under the direction of Honors College professor Martin Ratcliffe. One of their earliest tasks was to choose a variable star, from hundreds of possibilities, to study. The students follow the process that a scientist follows in constructing, analyzing, interpreting, writing and publishing their work. The project is designed to give the students “an experience of the essence of the scientific endeavor while contributing to the actual scientific literature.”
“Variable stars, they vary for a reason,” said Mohammad Allabbad, a senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering. “Sometimes, they vary because there’s an object that blocks that light. Maybe it’s varying because of a planet that’s orbiting that star. That tells us a little story about that planet, not just the star itself. That’s a good way of looking for exoplanets or distant planets.”
The students will use computer programs to study the photos, taken by the telescope, of the star. The telescopes are located in South Africa, Australia, Chile, Canary Islands, Texas and Hawaii.
“With different programs, we can change the coloring of the photos to see what types of gases and elements in the universe and they show up on a color scale,” said Alexandra Olmstead, a junior physics major who is considering a career in astronomy.
Allabbad and Noah Susuico, a freshman physics major, see the research project as an important part of their futures in graduate school. Susuico plans to pursue a doctorate in astronomy and would like to be research astronomer, perhaps for a government agency such as NASA.
“I need all the experience I can get,” Noah said. “I’ve always been fascinated with space. I always knew I wanted to do something related to space. It’s so unfathomably huge and there’s so much to learn that we have no idea about now, even in this age when we have so much information at our finger tips.”
Ivy plans to teach Advanced Placement physics in high school.
“It’s really important for you to have experience in what you’re teaching about,” she said. “Variable stars are interesting and this gives us way more experience than just studying a star that doesn’t fluctuate. That would be relatively more easy to gather its distance and more information. This is a bit more of a challenge.”
The program is coordinated by education researchers at the University of Wyoming and led by Michael Fitzgerald at the Edith Cowan Institute for education research in Perth, Australia.