The following post is from Aileen O’Donoghue, a professor at St. Lawrence University and member of the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team.
I, too, am at the 2011 undergraduate workshop at Arecibo. One of the tasks of the old people — those of us who are no longer students but bring students — is to think about submitting for a renewal of the NSF grant that has paid for all of us to come to Arecibo for observing and workshops. After starting the observing run last night with Jeff, Rose, and Eric under Ann’s supervision, I got to bed about 4 am and slept until a leisurely 8 am. At that time, I got up, made coffee and sat on the deck of Family Unit 1 where I am staying to enjoy the Puerto Rican morning. My thoughts turned to why it is so important for all of us to come to Puerto Rico instead of connecting to the observatory through the web from, say, Ithaca. Here are my thoughts:
The undergraduate workshop at Arecibo engages our students as a communty of scholars with each other, their faculty, and the instrument in a more profound and lasting way than any cyber connection could. Starting with the collaboration on the observing proposal and continuing through all the “scavenger hunt” excercises that require inquiry beyond Google, our students interact with students from other institutions with interests similar to their own yet different levels of astronomical and cultural knowledge and experience. The expertise and insights they discover in themselves and each other form some of the first tendrils that will link them and draw them into the web of the great communal effort of understanding the universe.
It cannot be overstated how important a role the reality of Puerto Rico and the Arecibo Observatory is in their experience. Our students live in a world of cyber representations truly beginning to rival actual experience. They text each other across the room instead of speaking, they “friend” each other on Facebook instead of over coffee, they visit the planet Pandora intead of observing Jupiter and its moons. The reality of the experience of physically traveling to Puerto Rico from across the United States and the drive on freeways and narrow twisting roads to the observatory site begin to pull them out of their cyber world. The first sight of the telescope awes them with its immensity, an awe that grows as they explore it; walking the steep karst hills to the visiting scientist quarters and conference center, the steps to the administration and control buildings, the suspended grate of the catwalk and the intricate pathways of the Platform and Gregorian Dome. It is an experience of reality that has a profound impact on most of them and cannot be replicated over the internet at any bandwidth.
The value of their experience at the Arecibo Observatory, however, goes beyond the physical instrument and their development as scientists as they recognize and discover the great vision and effort rquired for building and maintaining the observatory. During their stay they interact with many of the Arecibo staff. Beyond the realtively few staff scientists, they get to know some of the telescope operators, cooks, administrators and Visitor Center staff. It helps them to realize that the astronomical data we analyze is the product of a great number of unsung, yet vital, individuals with lives as devoted to the work of this observatory as those whose names are on the papers in the Astrophysical Journal. It contributes some humility to these young people to find people with and without academic degrees profoundly knowlegeable about the instrument and the universe. It also begins their realization that the activity of science and their responsibility as scientists are human activities and responsibilities that require more than clever manipulations of data. As well as intelligence and effort, the full work of science requires attention to the mundane realities of physical maintenance and administration and the important human qualities of respect for all the gifts and efforts different people bring to this great enterprise.
Comments and improvements are invited.