California Institute of Technology

Education and Outreach

PhD Comics

Scientist and artist Jorge Cham recently paid a visit to the exolab to talk about planet detection. Since nearly everything we know about planets depends on what we know about the stars they orbit, we spent three hours riffing on stars. We hope you enjoy the animation, and stay tuned for more!

A New Observational Lab Course at Caltech

The Caltech astronomy department has access to world-leading ground and space-based facilities that span the electromagnetic spectrum. However, the undergraduate curriculum at Caltech currently lacks an observational astronomy course. Courses of this type offered by several other major astronomy programs provide invaluable, hands-on experience in the acquisition and analysis of scientific data. The astronomy/physics students graduating from those institutions have clear advantages as graduate students at the next level.

To address this need within the Caltech astronomy program Professor Johnson is in the process of designing a new observational astronomy laboratory course centered on the MINERVA telescopes. The course will be broadly based on the Advanced Astronomy Laboratory courses at UC Berkeley, with modifications to focus on writing and oral presentation skills, in addition to fundamental observing and programming skills.

Projects can be original ideas, or they can be drawn from the literature with the goal of expanding upon or even simply verifying past scientific results. Example projects include: construction of the color-magnitude diagram of an open cluster; measuring the mass and radius of a transiting planet or eclipsing binary; and measuring the mass of a short-period SB1 (planet or stellar binary system) or SB2 using relative radial velocity measurements.

The course will culminate in week 10 with a simulated, one-day science conference, complete with oral and/or poster presentations, a coffee/poster-viewing break, Q&A sessions and attendance open to the entire astronomy department. This miniature science conference concept was tested during the Ay117 AstroStats course in the fall of 2010. It was a great success, and students and department attendees alike found the process scientifically productive, educational and enjoyable.

The Quest to Promote Diversity

Number of minority PhDs awarded each year in Astronomy (from Norman et al. 2010).

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley Professor Johnson kept a photocopied plot on his wall that showed the number of astronomy PhDs awarded to African Americans each year over the past 25 years (a similar plot is shown below). The figure showed an average rate of ~1 degree per year, and by the time he graduated he was able to write the names of individual astronomers over most of the data points. In 2007 Johnson's datum was added to the plot, and as a professor he is determined to see the rate increase by identifying outstanding minority physics and astronomy undergraduates, mentoring them as part of Caltech’s summer research fellowship program, and assisting them on their path to the top graduate programs in the nation.

Professor Johnson has a demonstrated record of promoting science among minorities and women. In addition to his participation in the Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowship (MURF) program this year, he has also been heavily involved in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program for the past two years. In the summer of 2010 he mentored four Caltech undergraduates, including three women.

Past and present minority students advised:

Sebastian Pineda (CIT grad)
Nicole Cabrerra (now at Georgia State)
Kimberly Aller (IfA)
Keith Hawkins (Ohio University, link to Caltech Today article)
Victoria “Ashley” Villar (MIT, Summer 2012 MURF).

Courses Taught


Courses Taught


Pasadena Public School Outreach

ExoLab and Astronomy Graduate Student Outreach are currently in collaboration with Community Connection of Leadership Pasadena Class of 2012. Graduate student volunteers support 8th grade students at Washington Middle School (Pasadena Unified School District) where they serve as Science Fair coaches—facilitating greater understanding of the scientific process and serving as role models for future scientists in our community.

MINERVA Outreach

Project MINERVA offers a built-in avenue for reaching students both at Caltech and elsewhere as well as sparking the imagination and curiosity of the public. With a fully roboticized, modular design MINERVA will have the capability of breaking free any telescope from the rest of the array to be used for public viewing or educational projects.

Full Assembly

In the first few years of Project MINERVA, students in the observational laboratory course will help "break in" the telescope system. As new telescopes are added to the Minerva array, the laboratory students will help refine the pointing solution, improve guiding and tracking, assess the photometric precision of the camera, and the spectrometer stability. While much of the telescope and instrument testing will be conducted by the Minerva science team, the AstroLab students will identify and address aspects of the telescope/instrument operations that can be better optimized.

For a set number of nights each summer the MINERVA telescopes will be outfitted with eyepieces as part of Palomar Mountain outreach activities. The CDK-700 telescopes are ideal for eyepiece viewing with Nasmyth ports that can be accessed even by physically disabled individuals, wide-field views, and minimal off-axis astigmatism or coma. Visitors will be able to tour the heavens taking in views of Solar System planets, the Moon, planetary nebulae, distant star clusters and galaxies. Visitors will also be provided an overview of exoplanet activities with the MINERVA telescopes/instruments, and we will demonstrate science operations by moving the telescopes robotically in formation.

The modular design of MINERVA allows for science operation even with a single telescope while inviting participation from other young exoplanet researchers. Professor Jason Wright of the Pennsylvania State University has already committed to the project with educational and public outreach plans to be implemented through PSU while joining in on the science front with his own team of experts. Prof. Nate McCrady of the University of Montana has also joined the project giving UM a gateway to world class science and a powerful undergraduate education tool.

Outside institutional involvement in MINERVA will strengthen and diversify the E/PO activities pursued at Palomar, provide a means of getting the telescope "on the sky" sooner than would be possible if funds were sought through traditional channels, and most importantly diversifying the impact of this small array of telescopes.