Astronomy Research Experience: ARE

Science courses and labs, useful as they are, are about the known. The heart of science, on the other hand, is about probing the unknown. The results are not known in advance. Problems are always encountered along the way as real research is not a neat, worked-out lab demo experiment. Due to its “messiness,” actual scientific research is usually reserved for professionals PhD scientists and their grad students. But why wait until grad school?


We should not expect STEM students at the outset of their educational careers to appreciate, without ever having done any actual research, that all of the individual lecture courses and technique labs they must take for many years will, in the end, somehow all come together in a usable, coherent manner. After all, would we expect students who want to be professional basketball players to take classes in the theory of basketball and participate in dunking and dribbling labs for years on end without ever actually playing a basketball game as a team member? Of course not! Nor should we expect STEM students to put off participating in real team research projects for many years.


The Astronomy Research Experience is a follow on to the Astronomy Research Seminar which has produced more than 200 published student team papers with over 700 coauthors, amply demonstrating that undergraduate (and high school) student teams can, in a single semester or less, complete modest scientific research projects in the same manner as professional research teams, including a paper submitted for publication.


Each student team (in both the Astronomy Research Seminar and the Astronomy Research Experience) prepares a research proposal, manages their own research, obtains and analyzes original data (from a remote robotic telescopes), writes a team paper, obtains an external review of their paper, submits their paper for publication to an appropriate journal, and gives a public PowerPoint presentation. To make this possible, student teams conduct research in a narrow area (binary star astrometry), and focus on producing a high-quality published paper.

By completing research projects, students often come to identify themselves as scientists. This identity can provide them with the grit many may need to complete their educational objective. Being a coauthor of a research paper improves a student’s chance of admission to their school of choice and obtaining a scholarship as a result of their demonstrated research experience. Completing a team research project can also provide useful, transferable skills in team participation and leadership, project planning and management, data acquisition and analysis, technical writing and critical thinking, and presenting research results in public as a talk or a poster.


The primary difference between the Seminar and the Experience is that the Seminar places more emphasis on education, while the Experience places its emphasis on obtaining cutting edge scientific research results in quantity. The Seminars make CCD observations of binary stars with apparent separations greater than five arcseconds, while the Experiences make the much more difficult speckle interferometry observations of binaries with separations less than two arcseconds (often below the seeing limit). Seminar teams typically observe a single binary, while Experience teams may observe a dozen or so. Students joining the Experience do best if they have taken the Seminar before they attempt the Experience or, alternatively, are sharp and self-motivated. The Experience students are directly immersed in the speckle interferometry community of practice, so although it is quite technical, they are not without support; they are thrown in the deep end of the pool but are not allowed to drown. Failure is not an option.