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Astronomy Research Opportunity Draws Top Students to UW

July 10, 2014
Two people working with telescope
University of Wyoming students Jareth Roberts of Gillette, left, and Alan Hatlestad of Casper work in the Star Observatory atop UW’s Physical Sciences Building. The two are on campus this summer participating in the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, working to determine the ages of regions within nearby galaxies. (UW Photo)

Alan Hatlestad’s decision to attend the University of Wyoming can be traced to his middle school years, when the Casper student attended UW’s annual summer AstroCamp aimed at stimulating interest in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.

Jareth Roberts of Gillette, meanwhile, didn’t decide to attend UW until he weighed his numerous college options as a senior honor student at Campbell County High School.

Both students, however, say personal contact from faculty members in UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy -- and the opportunity to work as undergraduates with those professors on research projects -- played a big role in their decision to attend UW. And, after completing their first year, they agree that choosing UW over the dozens of other institutions that recruited them, including Ivy League and other big-name schools attracted by their high ACT scores, was the right move.

“I decided that if I went to a really prestigious school, I wouldn’t have the same opportunities to do things that I have here,” says Hatlestad, who graduated from Casper’s Kelly Walsh High School. “That has definitely been the case. This is a great program, and I’ve had a terrific, challenging experience so far.”

Hatlestad and Roberts both are on campus this summer participating in the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, one of a select number of National Science Foundation-funded REU programs across the country. They’re part of an eight-person team that also includes undergraduates from schools including Rutgers University, Wellesley College, Northern Arizona University, Northern Michigan University and the University of Minnesota. The students are analyzing data they have obtained with UW’s large telescope on nearby Jelm Mountain, in addition to processing data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Their main goal is to determine the ages of regions within nearby galaxies.

Department of Physics and Astronomy Head Danny Dale says Hatlestad and Roberts have shown levels of knowledge and skill on par with team members who have more college experience -- a tribute to both their time at UW and their pre-college preparation. Hatlestad took math and science courses at Casper College while attending high school, while Roberts fulfilled many college general education requirements by taking dual-credit courses at Gillette College.

Dale says he makes it a practice to recruit high-achieving Wyoming high school students like Hatlestad and Roberts. He annually obtains from UW’s Admissions Office a list of high school students who have Jareth Roberts uses the telescope in UW’s Star Observatory while fellow UW student Alan Hatlestad watches.expressed interest in UW, but not yet enrolled, and personally contacts those with high grade-point averages and ACT scores.

“I go out of my way to recruit some of the top students who haven’t committed to UW and explain why coming here is a great option,” Dale says. “It just makes life more fun here as a professor.”

Dale didn’t have to work hard to convince Hatlestad, as his AstroCamp experience in middle school left an extremely positive impression of UW.

“That’s a really good program, and it stuck with me, even though during high school I toyed with the idea of attending other colleges,” Hatlestad says. “In February of my senior year, I visited UW and learned about the REU, and that sealed it for me.”

Roberts, meanwhile, says he grew up with a “weird stigma” attached to UW and was inclined to leave Wyoming to attend college elsewhere. But after he visited campus during his senior year, spoke with Dale and another professor, and considered his options, UW emerged as his top choice.

“I realized that I could get a lot here without having to pay the $40,000 a year in tuition that it would have cost to go to a big-name school,” Roberts says.

Both Roberts and Hatlestad are recipients of the Trustees Scholars’ Award, UW’s top academic scholarship that covers the cost of tuition, fees, and room and board for eight semesters. The scholarship is highly competitive: The average ACT score for this year’s winners is 32, and the average high school GPA is 3.98.

But both students say the financial incentive alone likely wouldn’t have persuaded them to attend UW. It was the opportunity, as undergraduates, to work with top faculty members on intriguing research that made the difference.

Their work in the REU program this summer has been challenging and rewarding, they say.

“The learning curve was super steep at first,” Roberts says. “But the way it seems to work is that you learn something new, then it goes easier, and then you have to learn something new again. It feels great when you’re able to solve a problem.”

Dale says the opportunity to take part in undergraduate research is a big selling point for UW, along with its low tuition. He notes that the relatively small number of graduate students in most of the university’s academic departments allows faculty members to focus more on undergraduate research than those at many other institutions.

“The fact that we’re not huge allows us to pay more attention to undergraduates,” Dale says. “I tell high school students that they can do research here their freshman year if they want to. And, once they graduate from UW, the research experience will be crucial for opening many doors in terms of graduate school.”

Roberts and Hatlestad both plan to pursue graduate studies after they receive UW bachelor’s degrees. Hatlestad has his eye on astrophysics, while Roberts hasn’t settled on a specific area of study within physics and astronomy.

In the meantime, they’re soaking up their experience as UW undergraduate students and researchers.

“We’re getting the chance to do things here that we wouldn’t at most other schools,” Hatlestad says.

Hear Professor Danny Dale discuss research opportunities available to undergraduate students in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy.Hear Professor Danny Dale discuss research opportunities available to undergraduate students in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy.

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