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WV Students Learn to Map the Milky Way


West Virginia students learn how to map the Galaxy to better understand our Universe.

Over the last weekend in March, a group of high school students under the direction of West Virginia University Physics and Astronomy Associate Professor Loren Anderson and former West Virginia University Teaching Associate Professor Kathryn Williamson convened at Green Bank Observatory, in Pocahontas County, WV, to collect data for the The Mapping the Milky Way outreach project.

Group photo of Mapping the Milky Way 2023

Mapping the Milky Way targets West Virginia high school students from around the state.  The program's goals are to provide these students with the thrill of scientific discovery, highlight the important science going on in West Virginia at the Green Bank Observatory, and to teach them about paths in STEM.

Introducing students to the process of conducting research and piquing their interest in scientific discovery is key to the NSF-funded program. “This is a program aimed at increasing student interest in science that attracts students of all ages and abilities.  We show them that science is accessible,” Anderson explains. 

Anderson’s research focuses on understanding the structure and properties of the Milky Way using the ionized gas produced by massive stars.  Much of this ionized gas is in the form of  Galactic HII (pronounced “H two”) regions, which are the zones of ionized gas surrounding young massive stars. Anderson has created the most complete catalog of these Galactic regions using WISE telescope data ( and is using this catalog to understand the global properties of our Galaxy. 

Students working together on project

Kathryn Williamson guides the students with hands-on project during the Mapping the Milky Way experience.

The students used the 40-foot telescope at the Green Bank Observatory to map neutral hydrogen (called “HI”) across the Galaxy.  Compared with HII regions, neutral hydrogen is less connected to massive star formation, but traces similar Galactic properties.  The 40-foot telescope is only partially automated, and students are required to calibrate the data, slew the telescope, and adjust the frequency themselves.  Once the data are collected, the students determine the brightness and Galactic location of the HI gas discovered.

"Participating in the Mapping the Milky Way project opened my eyes in the field of astronomy. I learned a lot of new information that I plan to use in other classes and applications in the future."High School Participant

Additional activities included in the outreach event include a roundtable discussion about life in college (as many participants are first generation students) and a Green Bank Telescope Engineering Design Challenge. 

Students collect data at Green Bank Observatory

The students participating in the project were from Huntington High School, Doddridge County in West Union, Riverside High School in Belle, and Cabell Midland High School in Ona.  Reaching students here in West Virginia is critical to nurturing scientific interest, especially in first generation students. “We also try to highlight that cutting edge research is being conducted right here in West Virginia," states Anderson. 

“Many of our participants don’t even know that this fantastic facility is in their own backyard!”

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation under the title "Understanding the Ionized Gas of Our Galaxy", NSF AST1812639.