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NAU boot camp aims to improve diversity in astronomy and computer science

NAU students Aadarsha Bastola, Breelyn Cocke, and Haley Blakenship work on coding at the astroinformatics boot camp
Melissa Sevigny
NAU students Aadarsha Bastola, Breelyn Cocke, and Haley Blakenship work on coding at the astroinformatics boot camp

Astronomers these days don’t count or name the stars—they code them, using sophisticated programming techniques to sort through enormous amounts of data. Students at Northern Arizona University got a chance to try those techniques for themselves at an intensive, week-long boot camp, where they could make real discoveries about the night sky—and about their own dreams for the future.

Chatter rises in a big classroom in the Science Annex as the students gather in small groups around their computers. Their task is to identify asteroids that don’t behave quite as they should.

Breelyn Cocke, astrophysics major, explains, "Basically we have a dataset, 31,693 asteroids I believe, and we’re trying to find the most unique ones out of that."

This takes skills in math and coding—a lot of coding. "It’s definitely a lot more programming than I thought it was going to be," Cocke says, laughing. "I would say it’s probably like 5 percent astronomy, 95 percent coding."  

The data-set of thirty-one thousand asteroids is housed in a supercomputer at NAU. Hidden in the reams of numbers are clues to what’s happening to asteroids way out in space. Anything the students discover is real, says boot camp instructor Daniel Kramer.

"We don’t know the answer to any of the questions they’ve working on, so if they discover something, it’ll be for the first time," Kramer says.

Some of the students are looking for asteroids that change their color; others focus on changes in brightness. That’s how they’ll spot ones that are doing something odd, say, growing a tail like a comet and losing it again.

"Seeing the light bulbs go off in their heads is an amazing feeling," Kramer says.

The data set is huge and writing code to sift through all it is challenging. The students get guidance from the boot camp instructors, but they have to puzzle out the steps on their own in small groups.

Astronomy professor David Trilling says the goal is to inspire students and give them the skills to enter fields that historically have suffered from a lack of diversity.

"If you only have white males in a field, then you’re excluding an awful lot of people in this world," he says.

Women make up only a quarter of those working in computer science in the U.S. and that number is declining. In astronomy and physics, only four percent of the nation’s workers are Black, five percent Hispanic, and a tiny fraction Native American. Trilling wants to change that. "We have a chance to make the world a better place," he says, "let’s do it."

The boot camp students get a thousand-dollar stipend for the week-long intensive camp to allow them to take time off of work. They come from diverse backgrounds, and have diverse plans for their futures.

Matthew Cooperman says he signed up to learn the coding he’ll need to study exoplanets one day. "This kind of coding would be probably very similar to what I’m going to be using, because I want to be seeing differences in atmospherics, to see if maybe we can find life," he says.

Jaidyn Thompson, an astrophysics and Japanese major, joined the boot camp to further her dream of working for an aerospace company. "Day 1, it was—I was honestly really worried, it was like, I don’t know how well I’m going to do on this, we don’t know a lot about this subject," Thompson says.

But just a couple of intense, eight-hour-days changed her mind.

"It’s honestly the freedom—they’re not giving you rigid instructions, they’re not telling you what to do, they’re like, ‘here’s the topic you’re trying to figure out, you go do what you think is best,’ and I think it gives everyone in this program more confidence in their ability to solve problems," she says.

The students say it’s nothing like the lessons they usually get in classrooms… it’s a chance to work with real data and make real discoveries about the wonders of the universe.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.