The room is large, with half a dozen students spaced from one end to the other. It’s cloudy outside and the lights are dim inside. The room is still with the hum of silent whispers and tapping on keyboards; students are busy with their computer screens, although occasionally they talk to the student at the next table or call a professor.
A casual observer might not suspect that those students were answering the universe’s questions and asking some of them at the same time.
This was the scene during the NAU’s inaugural astroinformatics boot camp, a joint venture between the Department of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences (DAPS) and the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems (SICCS). DAPS chair David Trillingassistant professor SICCS Michael Gowanlock and SICCS master’s student Daniel Kramer ran the bootcamp, which it was funded by the Las Cumbres Observatory and the Heising-Simons Foundation with the aim of increasing diversity in the fields of astronomy and computer science.
It is an important milestone, not only for the NAU but also for these disciplines. Recent studies show that the physical sciences and computer sciences are near the bottom in terms of undergraduate degrees awarded to many underrepresented groups, and that means less diversity of ideas and creative problem solving. It also limits career opportunities in stable fields; according to the NSF, unemployment is lower for scientists and engineers than for other occupations and they are on average higher-paid jobs. As a Hispanic service institution, it is also part of the NAU mission.
“By providing hands-on training for students from underrepresented backgrounds, we are helping to create potential career paths for students in Arizona and our region, as well as contributing to the growth of the national STEM economy,” said Trilling.
Seven students, from a wide range of majors and backgrounds, spent a week in August before the semester began immersed in big data – data of universal dimensions, indeed. They were working with images from large telescopes to study asteroids. The problem is that there is a huge amount of data produced by these astronomical surveys all over the sky. So the students made the universe smaller. They wrote and tested algorithms that measured the properties of asteroids, looked for unusual or changing behaviors of the asteroids, and identified the most efficient computer algorithms to employ.
These are the skills that students, all seniors this year, will pick up in their job search or college career regardless of the field they pursue.
“One of the best things you can do, especially if you don’t know which career path you are going on, is to simply gain as much experience as possible and try new things,” said the participant. Michele Rocco She said.
Seven students participated in the bootcamp:
- Kyle Younga major in computer science from Phoenix
- William Havasa major in astronomy from Redmond, Washington
- Savana Chappusa major in math and animation from Flagstaff
- Scott Austina major in computer science from Southern California
- Charlie Saluskia Phoenix area computer science major
- Loren Larrieua Flagstaff electrical engineering specialist
- Michele Roccoa Phoenix computer engineering specialist
The bootcamp was open to all students who had taken certain courses, with an emphasis on groups that have historically been underrepresented in astronomy, data science, and computer science. And the organizers looked for ways to ensure that students could participate. Not all students can take an unpaid week off, so students have been paid to attend. Not all students had all the necessary skills, so the professors taught the skills, guided the students through the assignments and supported them by letting the students take the lead. The goal was to give each student the opportunity to do research and become stronger candidates once they graduate.
“The students learned some of the skills that encompass the role of a data scientist,” said Gowanlock. “This is currently one of the fastest growing jobs in the industry and, in terms of other academic fields, the skills are highly transferable; a bootcamp student could apply what she has learned to other disciplines, such as those in STEM, economics and social sciences, among others. “
Astroinformatics and the art of “needle in a haystack” science.
This new field is the combination of astronomy and computer science. Trilling said astronomy is undergoing a revolution; an increasing amount of research is being driven by massive all-sky telescopic probes, including a new 10-year billion-dollar effort starting in 2024. They offer unprecedented views of the universe and a staggering amount of data.
“These polls produce so much data that no human could ever look at the data; instead, we need computational algorithms to analyze the data, “said Trilling.” So, this revolution is really driven by the technological advances that allow us to create large-scale surveys and analyze them in software. “
Astroinformatics, therefore, is needed to use this large-scale survey data. Trilling said scientists never knew
much about all categories of “things” in the universe. They also provide the opportunity for “needle in a haystack” science by finding rare astrophysical objects from which astronomers can learn about extreme and unusual events in the history of the solar system and the universe.
These big data, of course, require great IT skills. The students used Jupyter and Python to write and execute code and used the NAU supercomputer Monsoon.
A day at the bootcamp
Earlier in the week, the students split into three general groups, although their work was further broken down. Chappus, Austin and Saluski examined the data available through current telescopes in preparation for the opening of a large-scale telescope in Chile. Using the NAU’s SNAPS program, the solar system’s notification alert processing system, they used a standard deviation model to look for outliers in the data.
This will help analyze data from the new telescope, with its 3.2 billion-pixel camera with the aim of understanding how our solar system was formed.
“It would take 542 laptops to display one of the photos, so we’re not looking at the photos, we’re looking at the output data and trying to figure out how to find interesting objects for the audience to consume and go, ‘oh, there’s this interesting asteroid, I want to go see it, ‘”said Chappus. “This is the idea.”
Saluski was using the same data to examine changes in behavior that could indicate a collision in the asteroid belt. Scientists rarely see it happen, but they see evidence. Larrieu and Rocha’s work was examining the data showing the color of the asteroids: red means old, but blue could mean a collision has occurred, knocked out the old red crust, and allowed for cooler ground.
Young was writing code to figure out which parameters, out of 32,000 combinations, showed a correlation between asteroids. The correlation could provide scientists with insight into whether an asteroid had a collision or what other characteristics it might have based on whether or not the asteroid looks. Havas used the available data to locate asteroids in the sky and determine if their features warranted further research.
There were many ups and downs: the codes contained errors, sometimes the algorithm worked but did not find the object, other times finding an answer just meant more questions. There was also the logistics of work: this amount of processing required a huge amount of computer memory. But they continued.
Twice a day, the group met and presented the day’s work: results, processes and obstacles. Students and professors asked questions, questioned ideas and suggested ways to overcome difficulties.
“We all sat in one room for a week and worked on these issues together,” Trilling said. “Working side by side, especially during a week when there were relatively few outside distractions, really helped the students make a lot of progress and I think they enjoyed doing it, and so did the instructors!”
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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