Sixth Former Haley Andreasen has a lot of questions.
“I love humanities, but I was always asking myself, ‘Why? Why are we here? Why do we exist?” says Andreasen. “I think that theology, psychology, and all those realms give you good answers, but I wanted something just a little bit more concrete.”
She signed up for Introduction to Astronomy and started studying the solar system. That led to Galactic Astronomy and Stellar Astronomy, where she explored star evolution and the nature of galaxies.
“When I turned to the sciences, I felt like astronomy gave you the why – literally, how did the universe start?" explains Andreasen.
With her curiosity piqued, the Massachusetts-raised teen asked her teacher for additional material that went beyond the mechanics of astronomy and into astrophysics, where theories and astronomical observation intersect. Soon, she was exploring string theory, M-theory, and multi-universe theories.
Having completed all of the School’s Astronomy courses, Andreasen opted to apply for an Advanced Topics project. Advanced Topics encompass all academic disciplines. Once a student completes the curriculum in a given subject, Advanced Topics offers them the opportunity to pursue that area of study in more depth. To apply, students must secure a faculty member to serve as a mentor, and receive authorization from their adviser and the subject’s corresponding department head. The Dean of Studies and the academic department heads grant final approval.
Andreasen classified her area of focus as Advanced Astronomy. She’s combining fieldwork using the Dobsonian telescope at the School's Hawley Observatory with readings that dig deeper into the physics at the root of astronomy. She is reading the collegiate-level text Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology to gain a foundation in astrophysics. Andreasen has also branched into Stephen Hawking's works, The Theory of Everything and A Brief History of Time.
Advanced Topic projects go term-by-term, but Andreasen has dedicated a year to her research. She keeps track of her findings in handwritten notebooks, with the intent of creating a framework for other students looking to explore the subject. Now two-thirds of the way through her immersion, she is studying how galaxies relate to other galaxies, and how different galaxy clusters – a grouping of multiple galaxies held together by gravity – relate to each other. “Having someone knowledgeable enough to answer all of your questions is essential,” remarks Andreasen.
Astronomy and physics teacher Dr. Seth Cohen serves as her project adviser. While the work is student-driven, Cohen is there to offer guidance and insights. Galaxy clusters happen to be Cohen's expertise. He completed his doctoral thesis at Dartmouth on the substructure and star formation in galaxy clusters. He is one of several instructors on grounds with a background in astrophysics.
Andreasen will conclude her work at the academic year’s end and submit a reflection on her subject comprehension and findings. Still, her quest for answers will not stop there – she plans to pursue astronomy in college.
“You could be an astronomer and study one galaxy for your entire life and still not know everything about it,” says Andreasen. “It's a cool subject to study because there's no such thing as running out of information. I’ve been doing this (research) for many months, and I still feel like I am only scratching the surface.”