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Helping Teens Study the Universe

False-color image of the Whirlpool Galaxy

False-color image of the Whirlpool Galaxy by GASC participant Solara Campbell. Raw scientific black and white images from a telescope contain a lot of information, scientists then use a process to color-code the information they want to look at.

High school students got first-hand experience studying space and the Universe last week through the Girls’ Astronomy Summer Camp run by the Department of Astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and NCSA’s Center for AstroPhysical Surveys (CAPS).

The free camp is open to all high school students interested in astronomy. And being virtual this year, students participated from wherever they had an internet connection. Rachel Harrison, a fifth year PhD student and the camp’s main organizer, says that “[we] had students everywhere, from New Jersey to California.”

During the camp the students worked on real Hubble Telescope data, explored space with an online planetarium show, and talked with U of I astrophysicists about their research.


When CAPS staff learned the camp was going to be offered virtually this year due to COVID-19, they were excited to step up to assist in any way they could to help provide the best experience for the participants.

Using Radiant, NCSA’s new cloud computing environment, they deployed a custom JupyterHub system for the participants, allowing them to launch individual JupyterLab environments. The Jupyter project provides free, open-source web applications that allow you to create and share documents that contain live code, equations, visualizations, figures, and narrative text. Jupyter Notebooks are perfect for the astronomy camp as they allow participants to work with real astronomy data and also do simulation, modeling, visualization, and more.

Andrew Manning, a senior research programmer with NCSA’s CAPS team, has been working on a JupyterHub deployment for an NCSA Center Directed Discretionary Research grant. Applying lessons learned in that work, in less than a day he was able to create a JupyterLab environment for the astronomy camp coupled to a Nextcloud server for authentication and integrated cloud file storage for collaboration.

The father of two daughters himself, Manning says he has been “thrilled by this opportunity to support young women in science by providing them professional-grade scientific tools powered by free and open source software.”


Harrison noted that the camp places “an emphasis on hands-on learning, and thanks to NCSA’s support, students were able to flex their coding skills and work with real astronomy data. By giving students a peek into what being an astronomer is like, we hope to inspire the scientists of tomorrow.”

The camp was a lot of fun for all involved. One of the students, Kareena Israni, says it “was very fun to talk to multiple different astronomers about their careers, and the advice they gave was very helpful.”

Harrison says the astronomy department is already planning for next year. “If you’re interested in next year’s GASC, keep an eye on the Astronomy Department’s social media and the AstroIllini website in the spring!”


The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students and collaborators from around the globe use these resources to address research challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing many of the world’s industry giants for over 35 years by bringing industry, researchers and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

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