Students work with NASA, head to Washington, D.C.

Three Elkhart Memorial students are making their way into the field of astronomy while still only seniors in high school. Students Gabe Efsits, Duncan Learman, and Aaron Russell, along with Memorial Physics teacher, John Taylor, and a team of high school researchers from all across the country have spent the past school year working with the NASA Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program, better known as NITARP.

“We were trying to find young stellar objects, which are exactly what they sound like. They’re just baby stars that are forming in this molecular cloud,” explained Learman.

The team spent many after-school hours accessing real images from space satellites, and using the tools that NASA sponsored researchers use to evaluate space, to evaluate and compile a list of new data and observations.

“We’d use certain application to go through and look at the sources that we were trying to identify and we’d inspect on different wavelengths and find the photometry which is a measure for the intensity or the flux density at certain wavelengths, and we’d spend time organizing our sources and the photometry in different ways,” said Efsits

Headed by Dr. Luisa Rebull, the founder of NITARP, Professor at Cal. Tech., and employee at JPL (NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory), the project ultimately brought the team to the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in Washington D.C.

“Luisa [Rebull] paired us up in teams of two to present,” said Russell. “Gabe and I were partnered together, and Duncan and Liam, another student from Ohio, were partnered, and pretty much, the night before, and some time before that, we went over what we would say. Although Gabe and I were pretty strong on presenting the information, we had to get the flow together, like how we would bounce off of each other. For example, Gabe had a hard time starting it, so I would always start it, and then we would move on from there.”

Through their dedication and hard work, the team was able to present completely new findings to their peers and mentors in the astronomical society.

“We had 54 sources that we believed could be young stellar objects,” said Efsits. “We had put them into classes and from there, we had a majority of what we believed to be class ‘one’ young stellar objects (about 40%). The classes are different stages in the life of young stars, so class ‘one’s’ typically have the star, but they have a lot of dust around them still, so they’re very very young. A lot of the other objects fit into class ‘O’, which is very similar, they just have a lot more dust around them. But we had this list of 54, and we were presenting on those and why we thought they were whatever class we had classified them as, but actually 11 out of those 54 that we had, are actually newly found by our team, and so they were some that no one else had seen before. That was one really exciting part about it. A whole fifth of what we had was completely from us.”

And now armed with this new experience, both the students and the teacher have gained better insight and understanding into a new field and the path that leads there.

“As a teacher, you’re used to kind of setting up the students and making things kind of flow, but Dr. Rebull, she’s at grad level plus so she was coming at everybody really like we were college students, which is good for them [Learman, Efsits, Russell] to have experience in,” said Taylor. “It was a big commitment. These guys gave up a lot of time, but it also created a network because now, I have an idea on how to get students involved in this kind of stuff, so we can keep doing it. If you haven’t been through a program like this, you wouldn’t even know where to start, and there is so much more out there. It definitely changes the stuff we talk about, because now I can talk about things like gravity waves in class. I also got connected to people who allow me to connect my own research students with researchers at the graduate level now. That’s something I’m very excited about. We’ve obtained a lot of new equipment and technology that we get to figure out now. These things will slowly start working their way into the curriculum.”