Last semester, the students in “ASTR 255: Astrophysics Research Methods” embarked on an four-day trip to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Led by Marla Geha, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics, their visit marked the first time an undergraduate group observed on the site in the context of a class. In three-hour blocks, each student directed the telescope at selected targets and took data home for further analysis.
“The trip to Arecibo is part of a final project for ASTR 255 where students design and conduct their own research,” said Professor Geha. “One of their goals is to study isolated dwarf galaxies by their atomic hydrogen emission lines.”
As an introduction to the Astrophysics major, ASTR 255 aims to equip students with the analytical tools necessary for professional astronomical research. It is a highly intensive course that encompasses diverse topics from high-level programming to experimental design.
Nevertheless, Geha emphasized the course’s accessibility to all interested students: “You aren’t expected to know anything coming in, but we really hit the ground running.” Despite the rigorous pace of the class material, students responded positively on their overall class experience. Former student Kareem El-Badry describes the trip as “the highlight of [his] semester,” as he recalls climbing across catwalks hanging high over the telescope.
Although this was the course’s first year, Geha envisions ASTR 255 as an integral part of the Astrophysics curriculum in future years. “Science is never about doing problem sets. It’s about creative thinking — novel ideas. Arecibo is where students learn to design and conduct their own experiments.”
Cover Image: The Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is the largest single-aperture telescope in the world. Image courtesy of the Yale Astronomy Department.