A Day in the Life of SSP Students, July 18, 2008

By Roger Renteria

SOCORRO, N.M., July 18, 2008 – Summer science students are having fun and learning astrophysics during the Summer Science Program at New Mexico Tech.

SSP students

Right: from left to right, students Sean You, Konrad Komorowski, Dr. Kevin Krisciunas, professor of physics, and students Morgan Lai, and Matt Goodwin, are viewing digital images of a supernova captured by one of the telescopes at Etscorn Observatory early morning (or late night) on July 4th, 2008.

For six weeks, the campus bustles with academic and extracurricular activities – from guest speakers and lab experiments to sporting excursions and movie nights. Students find it hard to simply rest with the variety of exciting activities on campus.

From late-night homework sessions to playing soccer past dusk, 35 high school juniors and seniors from around the world are enjoying every minute, including their main assignment – to calculate the orbit of an asteroid. The main project is observing near-Earth asteroids, writing software that calculates the orbits of asteroids and measuring their movements.

Dr. Kevin Krisciunas, professor of physics from Texas A&M, and Dr. Agnes Kim, professor of physics from University of Texas-Austin, and Dr. William Andersen, professor of physics from Eastern New Mexico State University lead the lectures. Three teaching assistants help students with homework and their main project.

Professors present college-level calculus and astrophysics and show examples of physics processes using visuals, drawings and hands-on equipment. The professors are kept on their toes with the variety of student input during class.

“They are very sharp,” Krisciunas said. “They may be smarter than we are, but we have more experience.”

Krisciunas shares over 40 years of physics background with the class.

“These students are quick to understand concepts, and are very social,” he said. He praises his students for their proactive approach in the learning process.

Throughout the six-week program, students are treated to 10 guest speakers from many different disciplines of science. Two of the featured guest speakers from Tech were associate professor of geophysics Dr. Susan Bilek and associate professor of cave and karst science Dr. Penny Boston. Sometimes the guest speakers are slightly provocative, which keep students interested and offers them a chance to ask further questions about scientific knowledge.

“We learn for the sake of learning,” says Marie Fuller of Las Cruces. “It’s actually a nice thing.”

Students spend their free-time playing on the computer, hanging out with their classmates, playing basketball, or swimming. Many said their favorite activity is Thursday nights’ swing dance hosted by the New Mexico Tech Ballroom Association.

“This is very different than the normal social interaction that I have,” said Erika DeBenedictis of Albuquerque. “It’s a lot of fun to dance.” DeBenedictis, who attends St. Pius X in Albuquerque, is something of a New Mexico science celebrity. She won a Grand Award at the 2008 New Mexico Science and Engineering Fair and was a competitor at the International Science and Engineer Fair, where she won over $5000 in prizes.

For some students, it has been the first time that they have ever danced. They practice outside in the athletic field next to the Student Activities Center learning new swing dance moves each week. Some students dress up for the occasion.

However, students have their priorities set in learning about asteroids and physics.

“We all want to learn; it’s what makes SSP special,” said DeBenedictis.

They balance their time between completing homework and having fun. It is expected that they are responsible for themselves, such as doing their own laundry, completing their homework on-time, and getting enough sleep. However, it’s a learning experience that prepares them for college life.

Sometimes, it simulates college-life too well, such as sleepless nights and homework parties. The professors also share helpful insight of their experiences in college and offer life-long advice.

“Staying up and working on homework is normal,” said DeBenedictis.

Working in groups of three, students search skies for known asteroids to collect trajectory data to record their orbits around the sun. They create a program that uses data to plot the asteroid’s orbit. Students observe the heavenly objects through the digital imaging telescope at New Mexico Tech’s Etscorn Observatory. Students use a computer to direct the telescope to observe a segment of the sky. Through careful study of the image, they find asteroids to track and calculate.

“It has been an awesome experience,” says Konrad Komorowski, from Poland. “We are exposed to new equipment and software.”

In addition to their main project, several students are working on an extra project observing a supernova with Dr. Krisciunas. The students are working on an international student competition paper about supernovas. While everyone sleeps, these students spend the early morning hours capturing exposures of the sky for analysis. They huddle over a computer screen looking at digital images of the sky captured on the telescope. Dr. Krisciunas asked his students to compare the images that were saved the previous week and see if there were any changes to the supernova. They meticulously compare the specks on the screen to see the stellar explosion.

“It’s exciting because we don’t see many supernovas,” Komorowski said.