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Working in service: WVU offers opportunities to explore other worlds close to home

Photograph of an expert pointing up towards the illuminated ceiling of the WVU planetarium. There are people seated in chairs around her and a telescope standing near her.

For more than 30 years, the WVU Planetarium and Observatory, located at White Hall on the WVU Downtown Campus, has given residents in Morgantown and surrounding communities opportunities to see worlds beyond their own. (WVU Photo)

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(Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of news releases highlighting ways WVU is serving the Mountain State. Access photos, video and additional resources in a Media Toolkit from WVUToday.)

West Virginia University is taking exploration into Mountain State communities with programs focused on driving interest in science, technology, engineering and math while encouraging people of all ages to examine their world and others.

Robots among us

The WVU-sponsored Mountaineer Area RoboticS Team is on a mission to foster inclusivity, to inspire young people around the state and to spark interest in STEM fields within rural West Virginia communities.

The MARS effort started about 20 years ago when Earl Scime, Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics and Astronomy in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, recognized a gap in local youth activities. He got involved to give his two sons a space where they could explore robotics and has stuck with it for one reason.

“Every year, there is a kid who wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t keep coaching,” Scime said. “I tell myself each year that once that kid is finished, I’ll be finished. But every year, there’s another new kid hungry for what robotics has to offer.”

Scime said for many of the young people associated with his group, the MARS team is the first time they’ve really felt like they belong.

“We draw from five counties and even have kids who have driven 200 miles each way to continue being part of the team after their families moved,” Scime said. “We have a wide range of kids. Some are outstanding students, some come from troubled lives, and still others that probably wouldn’t finish high school if it wasn’t for their teammates and coaches pushing them.”

Partly due to people like Scime, robotics has become so popular in West Virginia, that participants can now letter in the activity in high school — one of the few states where that’s the case.

MARS has grown into a world championship team with an international reputation and its popularity has even helped drive students to the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering program, Scime said.

The Statler College is also involved in a federally funded project to put telepresence robots — remotely controlled, interactive wheeled devices with wireless internet connectivity — in Raleigh County classrooms to strengthen STEM education and support STEM educators.

“We hope to improve equality in education and promote hands-on learning of electronics and computer programming by allowing expert teachers to remotely reach a large number of students in rural schools using new technology, like the telepresence robots,” said Yu Gu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Spinning satellites

A team from the Statler College is partnering with the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium to open the West Virginia Small Satellite Center of Excellence.

The site will serve as a hub for small satellite research, development, testing, production and commercialization. Engineers at the Center will work with businesses and other organizations to develop the Mountain State’s second small satellite, helping those partners offer services and products to clients who want to fly experiments out to low orbit.

“It’s like a ‘Field of Dreams’ for small satellites,” Melanie Page, director of the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, said.

West Virginia’s first small satellite, STF-1, launched from New Zealand in 2018.

Looking up

For more than 30 years, the WVU Planetarium and Observatory, located at White Hall on the WVU Downtown Campus, has given residents in Morgantown and surrounding communities opportunities to see worlds beyond their own.

The WVU Planetarium and Observatory is focused on leading educational initiatives and engaging the community through curated astronomy programs while mentoring students in the Physics and Astronomy program and was able to find ways to continue that work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, work begins on upgrades to projectors, computer hardware and software, replacements for a decade-old system. Following the additions, the Planetarium will be able to incorporate live-stream video and external 360-degree content for the first time.

“These upgrades will help us bring science programs to larger audiences,” Jason E. Ybarra, director of the Planetarium and Observatory, said. “We regularly draw capacity crowds and thus are always looking for new ways to encourage and build on that enthusiasm for astronomy.”

On April 22, Earth Day, the Department of Physics and Astronomy will open its doors for public physics and astronomy demonstrations covering spacetime and gravity, gravitational waves, angular momentum, electricity and magnetism.

And to continue to serve local communities and expand outreach capabilities by tapping into the power of curiosity about astronomy, fundraising efforts — including those tied to the Day of Giving — are underway for a new, custom structure to house a 30-inch Dobsonian telescope at the WVU J.W. Ruby Research Farm in Preston County.

STEM campers

WVU Extension offers 4-H Code Camp at WVU Jackson’s Mill, giving young people in grades 6-12 opportunities to explore coding through hands-on computer science projects for drones, cybersecurity and computer animation.

In April, WVU Extension will host the WVU Eureka! STEM Camp for rural and underserved middle school girls for the second time at WVU Jackson’s Mill, designed as an immersive STEM experience with interactive lessons in forensics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, astronomy and biology.

At Statler College, Engineering Science Camps will be held in June and July for elementary, middle and high school students, offering hands-on activities dealing with ways engineering and computer science affect lives. For elementary campers, that will include an exploration of the fundamentals of engineering while middle school students focus on community construction and high school students tackle challenges in sports and entertainment, and engineer solutions in health care.

Space calls

At the Green Bank Observatory in Pocahontas County, home of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, Maura McLaughlin, Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of Physics and director of the WVU Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology, is part of a team of University scientists focused on research, educational outreach and telescope instrumentation development.

McLaughlin created the Center with her fellow astrophysicist and husband Duncan Lorimer, associate dean for research in the Eberly College.

In Green Bank, the two join other researchers in studying neutron stars and their environments through radio, X-ray and gamma-ray observations and, with the NANOGrav collaboration, use neutron stars to detect gravitational waves.

“We’re trying to detect gravitational waves by timing pulsars, which are basically rotating neutron stars,” McLaughlin said. “They act kind of like cosmic clocks in the sky.”

For more than a decade McLaughlin and Lorimer have worked with the Pulsar Science Collaboratory, a citizen science project focused on helping students, ages 13 and older, and teachers who, after training, analyze data collected by the Green Bank Telescope via the 20-meter telescope on site to search for new pulsars.

High school students from across West Virginia are regularly part of six-week online Collaboratory courses that are typically available in the fall or spring. After COVID-19 disruptions, in-person summer Pulsar Camps in Green Bank are resuming.

“We really wanted a way for students who are visiting Green Bank and getting excited about science to participate in real research,” McLaughlin said. “If the students find a pulsar, it is their discovery. It is motivating for them. It really changes their life, the opportunity to get to do that.”

The University is also part of WV SPOT, the West Virginia Science Public Outreach Team, a partnership involving the Green Bank Observatory and NASA which trains undergraduates at colleges and universities statewide to give STEM presentations in K-12 classrooms.

McLaughlin said the priority for presentations goes to elementary schools in rural areas and low-income communities.

“The idea is for students to get to meet a real undergraduate student scientist that they can learn about particular science topics from and also see as a role model,” she said. “We’re encouraging students to think about those career paths. It’s about getting them excited about some field of STEM and making them want to be a scientist.”

Read more about how WVU serves West Virginia.



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