The Pulsar Search Collaboratory: Making Pulsar Science Accessible to High School Students

Title: The Pulsar Search Collaboratory: Current Status and Future Prospects 

Authors: H. Blumer, M.McLaughlin, J. Stewart, K. Williamson, D. Lorimer, S. Heatherly, J. Swiggum, R. Lynch, C. Zabriskie, N. Lewandowska, A. Roy, and S. Au

First Author’s Institution: West Virginia University

Status: Accepted by the American Journal of Physics, open access on arxiv

Some people think that in order to do “real” science, you need to be in a fancy lab with sophisticated equipment at a university, but that’s not true. Citizen science projects such as Galaxy Zoo and SETI@Home are working to make science more accessible to everyone, and new opportunities are popping up every day. Astronomers at West Virginia University have created a program that allows students as young as 13 to do real science with real telescope data right from their own home!

What is the Pulsar Search Collaboratory?

The Pulsar Search Collaboratory, or PSC, is a program that allows high school students and teachers to analyze pulsar data from the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). Pulsars are very compact corpses of dead stars; they’re basically like taking something with the mass of our Sun (which is 99.99% of the total mass of our solar system), crushing it into the size of Manhattan, and spinning it as fast as a blender. These stars give off radio waves like a lighthouse which cross our sightline as the pulsar rotates (see Figure 1). Pulsars come in two types: regular pulsars, which have rotation periods of 1 to 20 seconds, and millisecond pulsars (MSPs), which have rotation periods of less than 30 milliseconds. MSPs rotate at an incredibly consistent rate and rival atomic clocks in terms of precision. These signals from pulsars can be used to detect planets around these stars and test different theories of gravity. NANOGrav, the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, uses the times of arrival of pulsar signals to search for gravitational waves.  Given all the groundbreaking science that comes from them, pulsars are very important objects in astronomy!

Image result for pulsar radio waves lighthouse
Figure 1: A pulsar’s beam crossing our line of sight as it rotates.
Credit: Sea and Sky

The Pulsar Search Collaboratory program was created by Dr. Maura McLaughlin, Dr. Duncan Lorimer, and Sue Ann Heatherly in 2007. At the time, the Green Bank Telescope was being repaired and was only able to point to one area in the sky. Dr. McLaughlin, Dr. Lorimer, and their team used this time to take data as the sky drifted above the telescope. After 300 hours of observing, they had more than 30 terabytes of data, an amount so large that with that amount of data, you could store about 3,500 hours of HD video. They formed the PSC to help analyze these data. The program, now funded by the National Science Foundation, is currently expanding nationwide and engages high school and middle school students, teachers, and undergraduate mentors in real-world research by having them search for pulsars in GBT data. The program consists of four components: an online workshop, an online environment, an annual capstone seminar, and a PSC summer camp. While analyzing the data and working with scientists, the students learn about observational radio astronomy, radio frequency interference (RFI), pulsar timing, data analysis. The authors of today’s work provide an overview of the pulsar science done with the PSC,the data analysis the students undertake, and an evaluation of the program itself.

Goals of the PSC

One of the main goals of the PSC is to build students’ awareness and interest in STEM careers. Studies have shown that students who had a research experience in high school through programs such as an internship, and whose teachers connected STEM content across different courses, were more likely to complete a STEM major than their peers who did not. The PSC provides students with experience conducting scientific research using real data that has not been analyzed before.  Through this research, they learn about concepts such as forces and motions, conversation of energy, and interactions of energy and matter, which can help them in their school courses. The program also builds other skills that are important such as working in teams, communicating their results to others, and using technology to help them do science.

Pulsar Science with the PSC

The GBT is one of the best telescopes in the world for studying pulsars. Pulsars emit in the radio regime of the electromagnetic spectrum, so we need a radio telescope in order to catch these signals. The main project for PSC students is to search through the data to try to find pulsars. Figure 2 shows an example of a plot that students would look through. Panel A shows the pulse profile (or the energy of the signal over the pulse window) folded at the period of the pulsar (or the best guess for it). What students are looking for here is a sharp pulse profile, which means the pulse is bright and probably not noise. Panel B shows the strength of the signal over time; a dark line (meaning a strong signal) at a certain phase over the whole time means the pulsar is emitting over the whole observation. Panel C shows the strength over different frequencies and here, students are looking for a dark vertical line (again meaning a strong signal) from the top to the bottom, pointing to the fact that this happens over all frequencies. Lastly, Panel D shows the dispersion measure (DM) plotted against its significance (measured by its χ2  value); students are looking for a peak a peak at a non-zero DM, which points to an object some distance away. By looking for simple things in the plots like the ones listed above, students can work to identify new pulsar candidates.

Graph showing a) a periodic pulse, b) a straight line on the phase vs. time graph; c) a straight line in the phase vs. frequency graph, and d) a peak at a DM of ~23 on the DM vs. reduced chi^2 graph
Figure 2: A sample of a plot students look at. (a) shows the pulse profile, (b) shows the time series, (c) shows the pulse power over frequency, and (d) shows the reduced χ2 versus dispersion measure

Effectiveness of the PSC

To measure how effective the PSC is in increasing students’ interest in STEM careers, pre- and post-surveys were given out to students, high school teachers, and undergraduate mentors.

Through the PSC, high school teachers aim to deepen their confidence in conducting scientific research and in their own teaching. After the PSC, the teachers showed a significant increase in their confidence in conducting research and their competency in teaching science, more than half reported implementing astrophysics science/research into their classrooms, and they consistently noted that they plan to implement PSC research into their classrooms. 

For the undergraduate mentors, the main goal is to improve their persistence in STEM majors through development of research skills. Figure 3 shows the results of pre- and post-surveys for undergraduate mentors. Many of the mentors said that their experiences confirmed or increased their interest in astronomy or astrophysics, expanded their career options, and increased their interest in becoming a STEM educator and doing research activities. The mentors also significantly increased their self-efficacy (confidence in their ability) to do research and improved their leadership and communication skills.

Graph showing the positive effect of the PSC on undergraduate mentors in categories like interest in STEM, research skills, leadership
Figure 3: The results of the survey of the undergraduates who mentor the high school students. 

The students who attended the summer camp took the surveys as well and the results were very positive. Almost all of the participants had increased understanding and competency in all areas, mostly their ability to analyze plots and understand radio astronomy, and lots of the students also shows that they felt they were part of a team during the process. Several of the students at the camp said that the most useful part of it was learning about new career fields and being able to talk to grad students and researchers during the process.

Overall, the PSC has been very effective at increasing students’ confidence in their abilities with science, teaching them valuable research skills, and developing skills such as leadership and being part of a team. The program has also helped high school teachers become more effective at teaching STEM and has increased their confidence in their own abilities to teach and do research. The PSC currently has 500 high school students, 100 high school teachers, 80 undergraduate mentors, and 31 faculty members from 195 middle schools and 16 colleges and universities, and that number is expected to increase. The PSC hopes to continue to work with schools and teachers across the nation to positively impact the students and support their STEM career ambitions.

How Can I Get Involved?

The PSC is open to high school teachers and students over the age of 13 who are sponsored by a teacher. Students, click here to find out how you can start analyzing pulsar data and even get college credit! Teachers, click here to learn how to implement the PSC into your classroom and get involved. If you’re an undergraduate looking to be a mentor, click here! For more information, visit

About Haley Wahl

I'm a PhD candidate West Virginia University and my main research area is pulsars. I'm currently working with the NANOGrav collaboration (a collaboration which is part of a worldwide effort to detect gravitational waves with pulsars) on polarization calibration and pulsar timing. I'm also very passionate about science communication and often share my science through Twitter and my blog, The Pulsars and Profiteroles Project, which combines my love of scicomm with my love of baking! Outside of science, I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles, baking, and watching movies.

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