ZTF Summer Undergraduate Astronomy Institute

With Eric Bellm (Caltech Project Scientist for ZTF) and working with the ZTF team and Eli Quetin from Pomona College, I led a program for astrophysics undergraduates working both at Caltech and at Pomona College. The program was funded for five years, from 2015 to 2019, by the National Science Foundation and was known as the “ZTF Summer Undergraduate Astronomy Institute.” The Institute was designed as a boot camp to enable students to immerse in the science and technology surrounding their summer research projects, and to learn more about ZTF – the Zwicky Transient Factory – and time domain astrophysics. ZTF was developed to transform the Palomar Observatory for discovering supernovae, variable stars, and new asteroids, and the ZTF Undergraduate Institute provided students with an intensive overview of techniques in time-domain astrophysics, observational astronomy, and instrument development.

Photo of M57 – Ring Nebula – taken by Maya Kulkarni at Mt. Wilson 60″ telescope
Eric Bellm is giving an overview of ZTF at Caltech Astronomy Auditorium.

The first 2015 ZTF Institute was scheduled at Caltech and Pomona College from June 24-27, 2015. The program began at Caltech with two days of talks, lab tours, and lectures, followed by two days at Pomona College with hands-on observing and the use of our brand-new planetarium facility.

Our NSF grant from ZTF paid for all the expenses for our students to work together, learn about their aspirations for future careers in science and learn more about what other undergraduates working in astrophysics were doing. The cohort building and community from the program made the subsequent research projects far more fulfilling and successful for the students and provided instant colleagues who could help answer questions and solve problems during the summer.

Our ZTF students at the Mt. Wilson 60″ telescope for a night of observing!
Roger Smith explains CCD detectors at the Caltech instrument labs to our students.

The first 2015 ZTF institute included  7 undergraduates working on SURF projects at Caltech and 8 students working on SURP programs from Pomona College. Highlights from the program included an opening dinner at the Atheneum, with a talk by Caltech author Sean Carroll (author of the new book “The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World”), a night of visual observing with the Mt. Wilson 60” telescope, tours of Caltech instrument labs, and hands-on observing and data analysis clinics at Pomona College, and a night of observations at the Pomona College Brackett Observatory.

Students observing stars with a spectrograph at the Pomona College observatory
Students taking a hands-on data analysis course at Pomona College.

Subsequent ZTF Undergraduate Institutes

For four more years, we continued to offer the Institute at Caltech to a mix of students from across the world, combining the summer undergraduate researchers from Pomona’s SURP program with Caltech’s SURF program and with students from India, China, Singapore, and other countries. The various institutes each had unique personalities and included more diverse students each year. The institute was a valuable time for students to reflect on their college experience, their aspirations, and deeper questions about their feelings of belonging in STEM.  We found that the time spent on field trips and in tours was especially rich for these conversations, and the interpersonal connections were an invaluable part of the student summer research experience.

During 2016,  I was based at Yale-NUS College in Singapore and was able to include students from Yale-NUS College Singapore and with a day at Carnegie Observatories.  By 2017, I had returned to California with a new job at Soka University of America, and some of my Soka students were included in the institutes during those years.

The last two years have websites that capture the program and some of the students’ experiences. You can see those linked below.

2018 ZTF Summer Undergraduate Institute – with Eli Quetin (Pomona) and Nadia Blagorodnova (Caltech), with a collaboration with the summer program at the Carnegie Observatories featuring 26 students from across the world.

Our NSF grant culminated in the 2019 ZTF Summer Undergraduate Institute, and during the final year, we integrated the students with the Palomar Observatory workshops on Python for graduate students and postdocs. The curriculum for those workshops enabled students to learn about Python, Data Analysis, Machine Learning, and other techniques and is a great basis for a curriculum in computer science in astrophysics.

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