Having fun under the Milky Way. Photo by Carter Fox.

Astro 461 was a unique experience as it not only taught many of the basics of ground based observational astronomy,  but it truly connected the data most astronomers acquire to the physical spaces in which those observations are taken. This extended beyond the spaces where science is done and into the surrounding landscape. This class not only allows the students in it to take real, research-quality data on true astronomical equipment, but it gives them a better understanding of the relation between an observatory and the surrounding resources. These two concepts are the basis of the course, and all lessons taught in the course - from the first arrival to the last night on the mountain - can be linked directly to the concepts of science and its relationship to the world around it, as well as the process by which observatories are sited, built, and updated throughout the years of use.

The first main concept of this course is understanding the methods of science and working directly with science-quality telescopes in typical observatory environments to take observations for a final research project. In order to obtain this goal, the course had in-depth lessons on how to take data (particularly with the MDM telescopes part-owned by Michigan), workshops on data reduction (something necessary to making any astronomical data useful in science), and one-on-one work with the Professor Sally Oey and GSI Stephanie Hamilton on the analysis of data taken on the instruments, so that information can be successfully obtained, reduced, and analyzed for the final goal of answering an astronomical question. These very hands-on experiences with equipment and data helped to connect the physical spaces where science is done with the data, something normally taken for granted by researchers who receive it without taking data on their own. These lessons on the scientific process, however, were only a small portion of what this course offered.

The second and, personally, more important portion of the curriculum in this course were the lessons in how the scientific equipment connects to the world around it. These lessons spanned the entire spectrum of relations between observatories and the land they were on; from learning about the process of building an observatory, maintenance on the mountain, and day to day management of public programs and business, to broader concepts, like how the presence of the observatory affects the cities and towns surrounding the mountain, the political impacts of observatories and particularly their relationship with native people, and the relationship with cities necessary to promote science and limit light pollution. These lessons provided for us a broader context within which the lifeblood of astronomy exists, and made us appreciate the hard work and sacrifices made in order to allow us such an opportunity, not only as a scientist but as a person. While this class can be intense at times - pushing students to balance lectures, research, social activities, and daily homework - it imparted a very deep understanding of the relation between observatories, their physical spaces, and the lands upon which they are built and hands-on experience with real research quality scientific equipment, including tours of the worlds most cutting edge technology, all framed by a one month long stay in the beautiful mountains of southern Arizona.