Partnership between Adams, Notre Dame students benefit both

Author: Kim Kilbride, South Bend Tribune

As Posted in the South Bend Tribune on Monday, December 8, 2014 6:00 am | Updated: 8:39 am, Mon Dec 8, 2014.

SOUTH BEND — Because it doesn’t have life-sustaining liquid water, “GJ-1214b” is not inhabitable, two Adams High School students determined.

Turns out, neither are the other exoplanets studied by Daniel Walsh’s astronomy students here.

In collaboration with University of Notre Dame physics professor Arielle Phillips, and a group of her undergraduates, the Adams students took part in an “Astro master class,” a two-week project, that culminated on Friday.

Their task was to search for planets in other solar systems and decide whether or not they could support life.

They used — and contributed to — “citizen science” websites that are created and maintained by scientists and generally contain data that's still being analyzed.

The Notre Dame students, who received extra credit for visiting Adams and working alongside the high schoolers, also get real-world knowledge about what it’s like to be a teacher in a public school, Phillips said.

Monica Daegele, a senior chemical engineering major at Notre Dame and volunteer for the Astro master class, wants to help increase interest in and awareness about STEM fields.

“I think the solar system is something that intrigues a lot of people,” she said. So, focusing on it, is a great way for teachers like Walsh to tap into STEM.

For the high school students, Walsh said, “the interaction with the Notre Dame students is huge. They get the opportunity to talk to real college students about what they’re doing, what they plan to do…”

Emily Peppers, an Adams senior in Walsh’s astronomy class, said she enjoyed working with the Notre Dame students.

“It was really interesting,” she said. “It was nice to have them mentor us.”

As the groups of high school students prepared Friday to present findings about each of their exoplanets, Phillips told them, because of the vast number of planets in our galaxy, it’s quite possible there is life on some of them.

By considering the ways life impacts the environment, she said, scientists are looking for clues.

“Everybody’s trying to maximize the chance of figuring it out,” she said.

Meanwhile, Adams Principal James Seitz said he’d like to incorporate more collaboration between students and teachers at Adams and area colleges and universities.

“We’ve got all these wonderful opportunities around here,” he said of institutions such as Notre Dame and Bethel College and Indiana University South Bend.

And both Walsh and Phillips say there’s very little direct monetary cost associated with projects like theirs.

“That is the beauty of this kind of outreach,” Walsh said. “It’s a low-budget venture ... but more importantly, it's educating students about cutting-edge research.”