The Chandra Astrophysics Institute

The Chandra Astrophysics Institute (CAI), a Chandra X-ray Observatory-sponsored program run by the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, is intended for students from the Boston area from a wide range of academic backgrounds with a limited opportunity to directly experience authentic science. Students may be interested in exploring a science career, or looking to develop research, technology and collaboration skills valuable for college or work in ANY field.

The CAI is a year-long program to train for and take part in authentic astronomy projects. Participants build employable research, technology and collaboration skills and background knowledge necessary to understand how research science is done. Investigations of different astronomical systems are undertaken during a 5 week summer session at MIT. Participants then apply these skills to undertake research projects in x-ray astronomy. Projects are mentored by MKI researchers and educators and are based on observations made with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

This past June marked the beginning of the 4th year of the CAI program, and we were glad to bring back two of our students from the first year of CAI as interns to help run the program and work with the current students. Simba is currently a junior at North Shore Community College, and Shakib is a sophomore at UMASS Amherst. In addition, we've been glad to bring Peter, a recent graduate in astronomy and physics from Boston University, on board as assistant CAI instructor. As a high school student, Peter took part in the parent program of the CAI, the Rutgers Astrophysics Institute.

We've asked them to reflect on their experience with CAI over the years.

--Mark, CAI principal instructor

My name is Shakib Ahmed and this is my third year participating in the Chandra Astrophysics Institute. When I look back, I can't count the number of things that this program has taught me. It has encouraged me to go further with my interest in science. I believe coming back this year as an intern has taught me even more.

CAI introduces a different way of approaching science. I feel that some public schools (or at least to the ones I've attended) has a meager way of bringing science to their students. Science isn't a subject that can only be studied, students need to go out and do science to achieve perfection. CAI promotes the idea that science needs to be approached in a more enthusiastic way to attract the students to achieve their own perfection. For example, instead of giving someone the answer to a question, it's much more important to realize why they asked the question. Furthermore, instead of just giving them the answer, this program would give them the tools they need to answer the question themselves. CAI strives to make students realize that the answer to a question has more value if they answer it themselves. This way, not only do they have pride in their answer, it makes them more eager to continue their interest in the subject and even ask other questions.

This program also made me realize that working in groups can put more quality in my work. From developing different models to go along with an observation to thinking of questions as to why an object behaves a certain way, collaborating in groups helps produce better models or helps answer some good questions while coming up with even better ones.

student interaction
Shakib (right) interacting with David (left), a student.

Perhaps one of the hardest concepts to learn in science is how to explain or describe a certain model or object. Since you are communicating with a lot of different people who are all approaching a certain concept in their own way, you need to be clear and pick your words very carefully to be understood. Writing these explanations is as important as talking about them. I soon realized when writing about a concept, you need to be even more careful with your words because the reader can actually go back and see if something made sense. I found writing the final papers was one of the best part of this program. Even though precision and clarification is a must-have, you get to brag about what you found and how you found it.

During the first year of CAI in 2005, my final project consisted of finding out the properties and behavior of the super massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way. I came back in 2006 to try out another project, finishing off another CAI year by doing a project on supernova remnants. This year, I was privileged enough to come back as an intern. The interns were in charge of guiding the students as they progressed through the summer session while also providing feedback on what was useful to teach and if the students grasped the concept when it was taught. We were also in charge of many minor chores like taking pictures, videos, and ordering food when needed. Being an intern, I also realized how dynamic the teaching process is. Mark is very good at explaining the materials he teaches, yet when something seems unclear; he approaches it a different way. This constant revising of the materials makes it easier to teach (and learn) every year.

Guiding the students in CAI made me realize that the only way I know that I've learned a concept is if I am able to clearly explain it to them. Going into geology myself, I'm still unclear as to what I want to do with this major. I may go into the research field or teach. Having the opportunity to teach, be a guide to the student, and try to explain some of the materials to them during CAI, I've became more interested in teaching. I'm sure what I've learned and what I've taught in this program has greatly influenced me and my future.


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