$1.24 Million NSF Grant to Advance Astronomy Education, Research

$1.24 Million NSF Grant to Advance Astronomy Education, Research
A 61-inch Kuiper Telescope at Steward Observatory.

From white dwarf stars to nearby galaxies, the infinite research potential of the cosmos is within reach for Cal Poly Pomona students.

A $1.24 million National Science Foundation grant boosts the university's astronomy program, allowing students to perform high-level research and work with top academic experts. The California-Arizona Minority Partnership for Astronomy Research and Education is part of a larger effort to encourage students, especially underrepresented minorities, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The five-year grant will provide paid summer internships for three to four Cal Poly Pomona students a year at the University of Arizona/Steward Observatory, one of the top astronomy programs in the world. During the academic year, students can continue their research with the possibility of traveling to Arizona for follow-up observations and meetings with astronomers.

Students aren't the only ones benefitting from the partnership. Cal Poly Pomona faculty will have direct access to the 61-inch and 90-inch telescopes at Steward Observatory throughout the year.

“For astronomers, it's so important to have direct access to an observatory. This is going to help build our astronomy research capacity here on campus,” says Physics Professor Alex Rudolph, who received the grant.

Although the university's astronomy program is small, there's strong and growing interest, Rudolph says. In the past four years, eight students have conducted astronomy-related research projects, including a study of brown dwarf stars, an investigation of the sun's magnetic fields and construction of a radio telescope to search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Rudolph hopes to double the number of student researchers during the grant's five-year cycle.

“This award comes at an important time for our department and campus. For many years, upper division courses in astrophysics and space physics were offered intermittently, and access to GE classes, such as astronomy and cosmology, has been limited,” says Steven McCauley, professor and chair of the Department of Physics. “This grant helps us address both of these issues. It will allow us to expand our upper division and GE offerings, getting more students involved in this interesting and fun area of study. In addition, our advanced students will have the opportunity to further their knowledge by participating in a summer research project.”

The partnership will give graduate school-bound students a sizable advantage. Not only will they have mentors who are experts in the field, they will have already learned to operate a telescope, collect data, analyze results and present their findings at a conference.

“Students will start to understand the culture of research,” Rudolph says. “If they've completed this program, they'll have real leg up in succeeding in graduate school.”