Public school students use world's leading telescopes for original research

29-Mar-2016

The Maunakea Scholars program was launched this year to bring Hawaii's aspiring young astronomers into the observatory community. This is the first program of its kind internationally, leveraging the most powerful collection of telescopes in the world for the direct educational advancement of Hawaii's high school students.

​​​​​​​​​WAIMEA, HAWAII - Local kids had a scientific chance of a lifetime last night: for the first time Hawaii high school students had an exclusive opportunity to use one of the world's most powerful telescopes for their own original research projects. Maunakea Scholars of Kapolei High School on Oahu and Waiakea High School on Hawaii Island were awarded highly competitive telescope observing time based on the merits, creativity and viability of their proposals earlier this month. 

The students spent the day waiting patiently at Halepohaku, the astronomers' midlevel facility, while hurricane-strength winds prevented access to the summit. The Kapolei High students continued to the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) headquarters in Waimea to spend the night observing the targets of their astronomical experiments from the remote telescope control room. 

"What a joy to be along for this adventure, witnessing the pure inspiration and curiosity our students feel as part of this program," said Heidi Armstrong, Hawaii State Department of Education complex area superintendent, Campbell-Kapolei. "Partnerships like this, between the Hawaii State Department of Education and the world's most powerful collection of telescopes, give our students the chance to push beyond the boundaries of conventional classroom education." 

Click for a larger image.​The Maunakea Scholars​ students worked for months with mentors from the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy and Gemini International Observatory to learn astronomical data analysis and formulate their research proposals.  The projects were selected by a time allocation committee at CFHT and collectively will receive a full night of telescope time to complete their observations.

"We are incredibly proud to provide the opportunity for these students to do cutting-edge research using our telescope," said Mary Beth Laychak, outreach program manager for CFHT. "The sophistication of their proposals is incredible, and we are excited to see what they are able to do next. We hope this experience jump-starts exciting careers in STEM fields." 

The first observing run took place last night in the remote observing room at CFHT's Waimea headquarters, where the four students from Kapolei High School watched data stream live from the summit to computer systems in Waimea. Ashley Cobbs and Nevyn Tyau are studying mischaracterized unconfirmed exoplanets while Jamie Valdez and David Zerba are studying supermassive black holes in quasars. Both student groups used the instrument ESPaDOnS​, CFHT's echelle spectropolarimeter, for their observations.

"Our project is about quasars: really hot gasses that come shooting out of black holes. They tell us what was evident in the early universe," said Valdez. "I'll be able to take this experience with me and know how much I'm capable of." 

"I wonder if in a few decades Ashley, Jamie, and the many, many Maunakea Scholars to come will look back at their data and names in CFHT’s archive and recall the moment they accomplished what they thought was unachievable," said Doug Simons, Executive Director for CFHT.  "The time a small flame was lit that they didn’t recognize initially but now burns brightly."

The Maunakea Scholars program was launched this year to bring Hawaii's aspiring young astronomers into the observatory community. This is the first program of its kind internationally, leveraging the most powerful collection of telescopes in the world for the direct educational advancement of Hawaii's high school students.

About the Maunakea Observatories
The Maunakea Observatories are a collaboration of independent institutions with telescopes located on Maunakea on the island of Hawaii. Together, the Observatories make Maunakea the most scientifically productive site for astronomy world-wide. The Maunakea Observatories include: Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, Gemini International Observatory, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (EAO), NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, Subaru Telescope, Submillimeter Array, UKIRT Observatory, University of Hawaii Hilo Educational Telescope, University of Hawaii 2.2 Meter Telescope, Very Long Baseline Array and W. M. Keck Observatory (Keck I and Keck II).​

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