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Girls Exploring the Universe



GETU at McCormick Observatory 2016

About the camp

The Girls Exploring the Universe (GETU) program was created, developed, and organized by Dr. Rukmani Vijayaraghavan in 2016 and was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and by the University of Virginia Department of Astronomy. This camp has been active since 2016 and over 140 campers have attended over the years! We have received funding from the Directors of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Virginia and UVa Astronomy’s Heidi Winter Fund.

Since 2016, we have engaged more than eighty 6th-8th graders in astronomy oriented activities — from looking at the Sun with solar telescopes, building mock Mars rovers and simulating a NASA mission to Mars, to making real observations with the 40 foot radio telescope at the Green Bank Observatory!

Our mission is to provide a comfortable environment that encourages middle schoolers to explore science through hands-on activities. Our camp is primarily led by women astronomers, and we bring in a variety of guest speakers from a broad range of astronomy-related fields, including science journalists and NASA astronauts, to tell the campers about their careers.

The GETU program offers a free, exciting, summer experience at the University of Virginia for middle schoolers designed to increase their interest and curiosity in astronomy and science.


Past Camp Activities

As GETU has been in operation since 2016, we have developed a number of camp activities over the years. We now have more than we can possible do in one camp, but here's a summary of what we've done in the past!

  • Analog Astronomy
    1. Looking at the Sun: Using a small radio dish and special solar telescope with an appropriate filter, we observe the Sun and try to identify sunspots and other solar phenomenon.
    2. Fingerprints in Light: We build handheld, cardboard spectograph to inspect how light contains information about the source. We explore how this information is used to understand exoplanets, other galaxies and the universe.
    3. Astrobiology: Using light patterns from elements such as oxygen and nitrogen, we compare these signatures to patterns in the atmospheres of planets and explore exoplanets atmospheres and what alien life could look like in different environments.
    4. The Relative Sizes of Planets: The students use Play-doh to model the relative sizes of planets in the Solar System. The goal of this activity is to understand that more than 96% of the combined volume of Solar System planets is in Jupiter and Saturn, and the other 7 planets comprise less than 4% of the volume.
    5. The Scale of the Solar System: On a long strip of paper, students will mark their initially assumed distances between planets. They will then through a guided activity mark the actual scale of the separation between planets. Following this activity, the students will go outdoors and physically understand the scale of the Solar System.
    6. Expanding Balloon Universes: Students will understand the expansion and eventual fate of the Universe by blowing balloons, and will also measure the rate of expansion of these universes to understand how astronomers measure the expansion of the Universe.
    7. The Cosmic Calendar: Based on the Cosmic Calendar method popularized by Carl Sagan, students will be involved in a collaborative hands-on activity to understand the age of the Universe, Solar System, Earth, and human civilization by compressing the evolution of the Universe to one year.
    8. Build a Radio Detector: Inspired by Radio Jove, we explore how a radio telescope works by building a simple radio detector and then detect some radio emission! This activity explores how radio light and optical light are different in both the information their provide and how their respective detectors work. Most importantly for our day camp, we can observe with radio telescopes during the day!
  • Digital Astronomy
    1. Find your Exoplanet: Students will understand how planets outside the Solar System, known as exoplanets, can be very different from planets within the Solar System through a range of activities. These students will be guided through calculating the sizes of planets, their masses, and their surface temperatures, and will learn how astronomers evaluate conditions for life.
    2. Helioviewer: Using, students will be able to explore historical and current images of the Sun from various telescopes and wavelengths. With these images, they will track sunspots, measure the rotation of the Sun, and identify comets and coronal explosions.
    3. Star in a Box: To understand the evolution of the stars of various masses, students will participate in this self-guided activity: Star in a Box. They will understand how stars like the Sun evolve (cool, increase in size, eventually form white dwarfs), and how massive stars explode forming supernovae and black holes. We will also discuss black holes, gravitational waves, and the consequences of falling into black holes.
    4. Multicolor images from telescopes: Using the MicroObservatory, we will submit requests for optical observations of different astronomical objects. The data are available usually the next day. Then using the SAOImage DS9 software (DS9), students will use images from telescopes through different filters to construct multi-color images (red, green, and blue) resembling real astronomical images. We explore what the light from these different filters tells astronomers about the astronomical object.
    5. The SDSS Scavenger Hunt: Students will participate in an online Scavenger Hunt using images from the SDSS (Scavenger Hunt). Through this scavenger hunt, they will identify a range of stars and galaxies of various ages, colors, and morphologies.
  • Conversations with Women Astronomers: Students will meet and interact with women astronomers at all career stages. In 2016, these included graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members from the Department of Astronomy and NRAO. Particularly noteworthy was an interactive talk on Pluto and the New Horizons mission with Prof. Anne Verbiscer, and an activity on classifying galaxies in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field with Prof. Kelsey Johnson. We hope these conversations with women astronomers motivate them to pursue careers in astronomy by giving them an opportunity to interact with potential role models.
  • Trip to Green Bank Observatory: Some years, the camp includes a trip to Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Students have an opportunity to explore the world famous Green Bank Telescope, the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. They will also use the 40-inch teaching telescope to perform radio observations of astronomical objects.
  • Mars Rover Launch: Some years, students will build model robotic Mars Rovers with LEGO kits in teams. They  then remotely control their Mars Rovers that will be placed in a remote location (`Mars'), where they will use their rovers to perform a series of activities like locating and collecting objects, solving puzzles, and so on. This activity will simulate a NASA mission, including assigning students various roles (Principal Investigator, Project Manager, and so on) and will be a team competition.





June 13st, 2024 - See you next year!

If you are interested in information about GETU 2025, please check back in January!

May 31st, 2024 - Update for GETU 2024!

Applications have closed for 2024. Check back early next year for GETU 2025 plans!

May 1st, 2024 - Update for GETU 2024!

GETU 2024 has a full set of applicants! We are only accepting applications for the wait-list at this point.

April 12th, 2024 - Update for GETU 2024!

We are extending the "full consideration" deadline for GETU 2024 until April 30th as our initial deadline is fast approaching and we have a number of spots open! Applications submitted before the original April 17th deadline will be notified by April 25th as advertised. Follow the link to apply!

We also have had inquires about our program this year. In addition to the day trip to the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, our program is focused on what light tells us about the universe. We plan to build a simple radio detector and explore how it is different than traditional telescopes.

March 12th, 2024 - We are excited to announce GETU 2024!

This is a free day camp focused on astronomy. Lunch, snacks, and camp materials are all provided!

This year we are happy to announce the camp will include a day trip to Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia on Tuesday, June 11th, 2024. We will travel by bus from the UVa Astronomy department to Green Bank. Parents are welcome to join. Note there is no cellular service available for the majority of the trip, as Green Bank is in the radio quiet zone.

  • We invite current 6th -- 8th graders to apply.
  • Camp Dates: June 10th - 12th, 2024
  • Daily from 9am to 4pm
    • Drop-off as early as 8am and pick up by 5:30pm.
    • Note for the Green Bank trip, we may require an earlier drop off and a later pick up time. Details to follow.
  • Where: Leander McCormick Observatory, 600 McCormick Rd, Charlottesville, VA 22904

Follow the link to apply! Applications are due by <s>April 17th<\s> April 30th for full consideration. Afterwards, we will accept applications until all the spots are filled. Update: Applications submitted before the original April 17th deadline will be notified by April 25th as advertised.

This camp adheres to the policies and guidelines of the University of Virginia Office of Youth Protection.


Contact information: Dr. Allison Costa, UVA/NRAO, Prof. Ilse Cleeves, UVA