A Week at Astronomy School

By Hayden McAlister | Posted: Tuesday May 1, 2018

In my holidays I had the honor to attend the Elaine P Snowden Astronomy School.

This involved travelling to and staying at the University of Canterbury for a week, partaking in many astrophysics related lectures and labs, and meeting secondary school students and post-graduate students with the same passions as myself. Overall this has been a fantastic experience and I will not forget it in a hurry. I have learned so much about my fields of interest, and also about tertiary education as a whole.

For me, I found the most enjoyable part of the week was the lectures and educational aspects. The material presented during this camp was of a level not readily available otherwise, not only recognizing what the students already knew but building on it further in a way that isn't always possible in a general classroom environment. Being able to learn at this level is important for education, as it is being challenged that allows us to push forward our understandings. I found that being taught in lectures by professionals that are renowned in their fields was inspiring, and has certainly helped me see what is on offer not only at the University of Canterbury but in the fields of Astronomy and Physics in general. Covering topics such as pulsating variable stars, spherical harmonics, neutrino detection, among many others has been insightful and has helped me get a better grasp on the workings of our universe on both a very large and very small scale. Furthermore, this school has helped me gain a better understanding of my goals for academia, allowing me to sample and try aspects of science I normally would not be able to, and seeing how I enjoy them and what truly piques my interests. Above all else, I think that the best opportunity from this school has yet to come, and is in the form of us students passing our gained knowledge on to other students back home, reaching and hopefully inspiring audiences far broader than the original twenty who set off.

Another aspect of the Astronomy School I enjoyed was the labs, where we were able to build our own telescopes (specifically Galileo scopes) which are rather more simple optical devices than those used at Mount John observatory, but still fascinating. This particular lab helped us understand the history of the field (i.e. how astronomical measurements were once made) as well as having a souvenir to take away. However my personal favorite lab was the modeling of stars in our universe and plotting these to effectively compare distance and density of the stellar objects involved. This allowed us to see the complex nature of the universe, and how galaxies are arranged on unfathomable scales.

One of the highlights for all students involved was definitely being given the opportunity to star gaze in one of the darkest places in New Zealand, the Mount John observatory in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Getting to see the Milky Way in all its glory, as well as the satellite galaxies with the naked eye is not something that will quickly be forgotten. Being able to use the telescopes at the observatory was also fantastic, and allowed for some incredible images to be generated of magnificent objects otherwise only visible as points in our sky. The astrophotography was also memorable, and I know that has resonated with several of the attendees.

The selection process for this camp had already guaranteed that the students attending were of a high academic caliber, but even then the intellectual side of this school was rivaled by the social aspect. Over the short week spent together we have made friends for life, and through the various activities we all bonded over our common passions and drives.

Overall the Elaine P Snowden Astronomy School has been a great experience for me, and I am thoroughly glad I was able to attend. I have grown significantly as a person because of it, and hope to continue growing in its wake.