Students Teaching Students: How to Study the Stars

An image of the Horsehead Nebula captured by the new 20-inch telescope on Embry-Riddle's Prescott Campus
The new 20-inch telescope on Embry-Riddle's Prescott Campus recently captured an image of the Horsehead Nebula. Lit up by a belt star of Orion, the dark cloud resembling a horse's head is a place where stars are forming. Color was artificially added for contrast. (Photo: Noel Richardson)

When Katie Casciotti was a freshman on Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott Campus, upperclassmen took her under their wing. They taught her how to use the telescope observatory to conduct research on how stars form — a study that has ramifications on our understanding of the origins of the universe.

Now, Casciotti, a junior majoring in Astronomy with minors in computer science and mathematics, is passing her observatory expertise on to other students as the team lead of a peer-mentoring astronomy group called the Prescott Observing Team for the Analysis of Telescopically Obtained Spectra (POTATOS).

“I got certified to use the observatory in my sophomore year and have been teaching new members of the group ever since,” she said. Two additional POTATOS members are also certified, three are nearing certification and 15 additional students participate.

The group — the brainchild of Dr. Noel Richardson, assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy — works with spectroscopy to research “Be stars,” massive stars encircled by hot disks that emit hydrogen as the stars rotate a hundred times faster than the sun. Spectroscopy breaks light into a color spectrum similar to how a prism creates a rainbow. Variations in the spectrum and how they change provide information on stellar systems.

Be stars have what are called “decretion disks,” which form from material ejected from the stars. The POTATOS researchers measure the speed and composition of the disks, and then track how they change over time, Casciotti said.

Richardson said the group is helping students develop their own research.

Members of the Prescott Observing Team for the Analysis of Telescopically Obtained Spectra (POTATOS) in front of the observatory
Members of the Prescott Observing Team for the Analysis of Telescopically Obtained Spectra (POTATOS) in front of the observatory that houses the 16-inch telescope. (Photo: Katie Casciotti)

“The students are learning how to take data, and many of them are learning how to process the data to be useful for astronomical research, with some planning on using these observations as they start their own research projects or capstone projects,” Richardson said.

This year, Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach Campus donated a 20-inch telescope to the Prescott Campus, which, with its high elevation and dry air, has optimal sky-watching properties. The campus already had a 16-inch telescope operational on campus. The bigger telescope has a mechanical mount and dome that moves automatically as the telescope is aimed at specific celestial targets. Both telescopes will be in use this semester.

"The new 20-inch telescope will result in a huge improvement in hands-on observing opportunities for classes and undergraduate research," said Dr. Brennan Hughey, department chair of Physics and Astronomy.

Hughey added that Embry-Riddle is expanding its astronomy program in Prescott with a new astronomy lab to give first-year astronomy majors more hands-on experience. The expansion will also allow for increased recruitment through a new astronomy camp for high school students, which will be led in June by Dr. Pragati Pradhan, assistant professor.

Hailey Widger, an Astronomy sophomore who also serves as the secretary of POTATOS, acquired her knowledge of how to use the observatory from her student mentors. She is nearing certification.

“My involvement in POTATOS will be helpful for me in both my academic and career paths, as it has helped me to get involved in research,” Widger said. “I look forward to helping junior members learn how to use the observatory."

Casciotti, who said she would love to work as a university researcher and professor and do science outreach throughout her career, said her involvement in the POTATOS group should be very helpful.

“It is a leadership and teaching role that I will hold for three years total,” she said. “Leading POTATOS has taught me a lot about leadership, problem-solving and how to conduct research. I have also gained so many technical skills working with the telescopes and other observatory equipment."

Posted In: Space