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Unique learning opportunity opens doors

April 18, 2019

Three College of Idaho students have parlayed a week-long learning experience in New Mexico into presentation and publication opportunities in the field of spectroscopy, as it relates to a class of stars.

Molly Vitale-Sullivan, Nick Lotspeich and Micah Woodard spent their winter break (the one-week break the end of winter term and the start of spring term) with Dr. Joe Daglan, immersed in study of Class B stars with emission lines. Specifically, the students and Dr. Daglan researched the spectroscopy, the stars’ light intensities at different wavelengths.

“It was really fun taking all of our spectra and actually going into detail about what each of them meant,” said Woodard, a student in the College’s dual-degree engineering program who will graduate next year.

The academic opportunity did not end when the five-day trip to visit Daglan in New Mexico wrapped up. The trio then went to Las Cruces, New Mexico, in late February and presented their findings at the Sacramento Mountains Spectroscopy Workshop. The workshop consisted of people with experience ranging all the way from beginners to those who earned their Ph.D. degrees in astronomy.

“Giving the presentation was a great experience because it was met with enthusiasm from the audience,” said Vitale-Sullivan, a junior mathematics-physics major. “There was a lot of energy at the conference and it was motivating to be around other people who are enthusiastic about spectroscopy.”

It went so well that the group has been asked to return this fall for the American Association of Variable Star Observers’ annual meeting.

“We plan on going back to Las Cruces in October to present,” said Lotspeich, another mathematics-physics major who will graduate in 2021. “The presentation in October will be around the same things we did (in February) and new spectra we collect this summer.”

Lotspeich and Woodard will be part of the summer research team working with Dr. Jim Dull, a physics professor at the College. Dull is a big believer in the value of learning experiences that occur outside of the classroom.

“This is an incredible experience for our students,” Dull said. “First, they get to travel off campus to do learning that is outside the normal curriculum. The travel and the new material play an equal part in the experience. Second, they get to focus on a single idea for an extended period of time. Granted, this trip was relatively short, but they literally spent all of their time doing astronomy or astronomy-related activities. The combination of these two factors makes the experience worthwhile. The students will always remember New Mexico, astronomy, and the effort they put into the activity.”

An added bonus? The work that the students did in February with Daglan will be included in published research. The students’ research was given to two astronomers, Dr. David Whelan and Drew Chejnowski, to augment their own research, which is scheduled to be published this fall.

Daglan is a former instructor at The College of Idaho who taught biology courses as well as the College’s Introduction to Astronomy class.

“Dr. Daglan wanted the presentation to be a sort of inspirational story for people new to spectroscopy,” Woodard said, “showing that spectroscopy wasn’t a big, scary hobby, but a very attainable and learnable skill. Nick, Molly, and I learned most of it in five, jam-packed days so anyone at the conference could, too.”

The College of Idaho has a 128-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit