Creation of the GRASP Summer Camp

by Lindsey Thaler

In the winter of 2008, I was finishing up my senior year as a physics major at OSU.  At that same time, I was the treasurer of the Society of Women in Physics (SWiP) and we were brainstorming ways to increase the number of undergraduate women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors.  The SWiP officers and I decided to meet with members of the Undergraduate Studies Office in the Department of Physics to come up with a plan to reach out to middle school age girls and introduce them to the world of physics.

Dr. Richard Hughes, who was the Vice-Chair for Undergraduate Studies at the time, suggested that we create a physics summer camp.  This was a great idea!  But, it was already March.  Would we have enough time to pull this off in time for summer?  We had to create a name, come up with an application process, design a logo, find funding, gather volunteers, create activities, and more.  Could we do this?  In addition to focusing on doing well in the remainder of my courses, wrapping up my research in high energy physics, and looking for a full time job, would I be able do this?

By the end of May we had 23 applicants, the camp schedule was finalized, a name for the camp had been decided, and t-shirts with the newly created camp logo had been ordered.  There were only a few details left to finalize and we were so excited and relieved that this was panning out to be a success.

The camp was named GRASP (Girls Reaching to Achieve in Sports and Physics).  The goal, we decided, was to offer a day camp for middle school age girls so they can come to campus and learn the physics behind every day activities, like sports.  By tying physics back to everyday life activities, the campers would be able to relate to the concepts better and therefore be more interested in learning them.  The activities we chose included the physics of basketball, ice skating, kick-boxing, rock wall climbing, and swimming.  Our plan was for the campers to learn about a physics concept, like the physics of basketball, from a physics faculty member each morning.  Then, in the afternoons, the campers would go play the sport they just learned about.  That way, they could feel and see the physics behind the sport as they played.  Other camp activities would include building rockets, learning about superconductivity, building catapults, making slime, and making ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

The first day of camp was on Monday June 23, 2008.  Going in to it, we had absolutely no idea how it was going to go, but by the end of day one, I knew we had created something amazing.  The campers were having so much fun learning physics!  They loved the activities, the demos, and even the lectures.  It was clear to me that the campers were paying attention to what they were learning.  For example, Dr. Brian Winer, a physics professor, taught the girls the physics of flight.  His presentation included the differences between floating and flying.  A few days later, while we were walking through campus to get to an activity, one of the campers turned to me and said, “It’s so hot outside!  I wish I could fly there.  Not float, fly!”

One of my favorite GRASP moments was in 2011.  The girls were watching a physics demo show that included making smoke rings using a smoke machine and a trashcan with a hole in the bottom.  Unfortunately one of the smoke rings hit the smoke detector and triggered the fire alarm.  Everyone had to evacuate the building and a few minutes later, several fire trucks showed up.  Initially I felt bad that the demo show had been cut short, but I quickly noticed that the girls were super excited about the whole incident.

GRASP campers after the fire alarm went off and the fire trucks showed up

GRASP campers after the fire alarm went off and the fire trucks showed up

We are now preparing for the 6th annual GRASP Summer Camp (scheduled for June 2013) and the number of applicants has risen from 23 in 2008 to over 100 in 2012.  Other activities we’ve included in GRASP since 2008 include the physics of football, archery, gymnastics, and biking.  We’ve also taken field trips to the Air Force Museum and to COSI (Center of Science and Industry in Columbus).  Robin Patterson and I are the co-directors of GRASP and we are very thankful for the ongoing support from the Department of Physics faculty, staff, post-docs, graduate students, and undergraduate students.  I wish I could thank everyone by name in this article.

GRASP Acknowledgements

The first year of the GRASP summer camp would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the 2007-2008 SWiP group, including Katie Malone and Jessica Hanzlik, and physics faculty and staff including Dr. James Beatty, Dr. Richard Hughes, Dr. Nandini Trivedi, Dr. Lou DiMauro, Dr. Brian Winer, Dr. Linn Van Woerkom, Robin Patterson, Harold Whitt, and John Langkals.

Additional information about GRASP, including a link to the 2013 application, can be found at

www.physics.ohio-state.edu/undergrad/GRASP

2011 GRASP campers building battery powered cars

2011 GRASP campers building battery powered cars

2012 GRASP campers spelling “GRASP”

2012 GRASP campers spelling “GRASP”

Participants and volunteers of the 1st GRASP Summer Camp, June 2008.

Participants and volunteers of the 1st GRASP Summer Camp, June 2008.

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About Lindsey Thaler

bio picLindsey Thaler is a graduate of the OSU undergraduate physics program and is currently the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Physics.  She lives in Columbus with her husband, Aaron, who is an engineer and her cat, Ollie.  In her free time, she enjoys photography and refinishing furniture.

Observing the Dark

by Ken Patton

April 2012: I’m headed to the airport early one Wednesday afternoon.  Double check to make sure I have my bags, backpack, and really the one most important thing I need: my passport.  This is going to be my first trip to Chile where the telescope for the Dark Energy Survey (DES) is located.  I’m a graduate student at Ohio State and I’ve been working on software for DES over the previous half year; this trip is intended to be a ‘mock’ observing run to test the software and hardware on our telescope.  And luckily the project is also giving me the first ever opportunity to travel to a destination requiring my passport.  I’m flying into La Serena, a town located about an hour and a half drive from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) where the telescope is located.

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Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory

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Blanco (DES telescope) is on the left, with various other telescopes.

The Dark Energy Survey is meant to study the nature of dark energy, a form of energy with negative pressure that is causing the universe to expand at an increasingly faster rate over time.  The survey will take images in several different colors over one eighth of the sky, observing over 300 million faint distant galaxies.  From statistical properties of the galaxies we can infer the expansion history of the universe.  For the ‘mock’ observing run, however, our camera is not yet mounted on the actual telescope; this means we are primarily testing the system without the actual ability to image the sky.

As we are still performing a good deal of engineering work we expected many of the components to have minor issues here or there.  However, within the first few days we got derailed by one thing we were not expecting: the cooling system of the telescope dome.  It is somewhat equivalent to air conditioning units but it circulates a mixture of water and antifreeze to cool various components inside the dome.  It’s an established system that is in use many places, so we did not expect to run into issues with it.  This caused a slight panic at first since without the building cooling system we would not be able to cool down the camera for the telescope, which operates at -100 degrees Celsius.

As most experimentalists know, it’s often the little things that have the potential to derail your project.  We began to develop a fallback plan for our tests, but fortunately within a couple of days they were able to getting the cooling system back up and running satisfactorily.  This allowed us to fully test the software by pulling data off the camera, processing it into images, and sending the data back to Fermilab (the national lab near Chicago hosting our data).  Overall the ‘mock’ observing run ended as a success, and it gave us useful information on which systems, such as the building cooling, needed improvements over the next few months before we actually intended to observe the sky.

Data from a single CCD with our ‘star’ projector

Data from a single CCD with our ‘star’ projector

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The Blanco telescope inside the dome

Returning to Ohio it was back to the daily grind. Unfortunately, most days in the life of a scientist are not always glamorous. Much of your time is spent building, troubleshooting, and debugging rather than analyzing or collecting data.  But we live for the interesting events.  Final results from an experiment.  Publishing a paper.  Travelling to conferences, meetings, or in some cases, to remote observing locations.

Most of my time prior to and after the ‘mock’ observing run was dedicated to working on software for the telescope.  Before the telescope was being used to observe the sky, a large fraction of the effort in the collaboration was focused on getting all the systems ready.  Nonetheless, we still made time for collaboration meetings to discuss the goals of our dark energy science, mostly through constraining the evolution history of the universe.  To do this we have four different probes of cosmology: supernova, baryon acoustic oscillations, galaxy clusters, and gravitational lensing (you can read more about these probes here: http://www.darkenergysurvey.org/science/).

Then in early September we had first light. Wooooooooo! It was exciting seeing the first few images of the sky come off the camera because of how much work we had put into the project at that point.  In the very first images all of the stars and galaxies looked like large donuts- a sign the system was out of focus.  This is pretty much what we expected since we had not gone through the process of calibration yet; in particular we needed to determine the optimal distance from the correcting lenses in the telescope to the focal plane.  So that night the telescope operators stepped through offsets based on the first images to focus it and voila, stars and galaxies started to appear.  We had real data with which we could begin to do science.

First light!

First light!

Since then we’ve progressed into a phase of ‘science verification’ before the official start of the survey.  In this phase we staff the telescope with regular observing shifts and collect data much like we would for the full survey, but over a much smaller area of the sky with the intention of analyzing the data on a quicker time scale.  A typical observing shift consists of four scientists for DES: two observers (in case one falls asleep!), a software expert (often done remotely), and a run manager.  The run manager is the one who plans the observations for the night.  The observers then actually run the telescope, telling it where to point and verifying the correct images are being taken.  And the software expert is just on call in case system issues arise.

Blanco control room

Blanco control room

Eight months after my ‘mock’ observing run I got to return to the telescope once more for a real observing shift.  It was a bit more intense this time around because the telescope had to be run at night (surprise!) unlike the first trip.  For this trip I mostly operated as an observer while also providing local software support based on my experience with the code.

Outside the Blanco dome in the morning

Outside the Blanco dome in the morning

Dome opened for the night prior to observations around 8 PM

Dome opened for the night prior to observations around 8 PM

During the course of the survey many scientists will travel down to CTIO in order to rotate through week-long observing shifts.  We have not officially started the full survey, but are currently finishing up the phase of science verification.  When this phase is complete we should be able to publish preliminary results confirming our ability to perform the dark energy science we set out over the next five years.  You can follow our progress and see more images here: http://www.darkenergysurvey.org

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About Ken Patton

IMG_0749I am originally a Columbus native, but I did my undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and then worked in Washington D.C. for three years before returning to The Ohio State University to pursue my PhD in Physics.  In my free time I play a lot of soccer, both on recreational teams and in various pick-up games with friends.  I got into astrophysics and cosmology after a professor once told me that if I had an interest in general relativity, condensed matter may not be the right area for me.