Philip Choi

Philip ChoiAwardee: Philip Choi, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy

Philip Choi is an observational astronomer and an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. His research interests include galaxy evolution, star formation, astronomical adaptive optics, and most recently, the detection of potentially hazardous Near-Earth Asteroids.

Title: Incorporating a Community-Based Ecosystem of Astronomy Python Packages (AstroPy) into the Astrophysics Curriculum

Goal: To redesign the Fall 2022 ASTR101: Techniques in Observational Astrophysics course so students are trained in the most current research tool, Astropy

Project Description

Phillip Choi has taught the upper-level research methods course ASTR101: Techniques in Observational Astrophysics for the past fifteen years, bearing witness to the continuous change in hardware, software, and analysis techniques needed to engage in astronomical research. Specifically, in recent years Choi has slowly seen institutional support diminish for the use of the data analysis package, Image Reduction and Analysis Facility (IRAF), the tool the current conception of ASTR101: Techniques in Observational Astrophysics has historically relied on. Since its inception thirty-nine years ago, the platform has managed to maintain a steady user group—that is until it was announced in Fall 2021 that support for the latest Mac OS platform would go away; continuing to use IRAF would require a full set of LINUX computers, which isn’t reasonably feasible.  

Though Professor Choi had slowly begun migrating away from IRAF, this new development pushes him to fully migrate labs and assignments into the current software of choice, a decentralized community software development project named AstroPy that has gained popularity amongst other research groups in the past years. Of course, though, as many faculty are aware, migrating course materials can be a tedious process. Working with former TAs to build new modules and testing tools for the Fall 2022 reinstatement of the ASTR101 course (and eventual installment into other introductory courses like ASTR51), Choi hopes to achieve the task. Indeed, the migration means much more to Choi than merely being encouraged by a failed software system. Choi is well aware that as a required course for majors and minors of Astrophysics, students who take the course frequently go on to engage in research that relies on the skillsets learned from the course.

“The teaching/learning goals for this course’s development efforts are to train our students with the most current research tools in the field.”

-Philip Choi

Project Outcomes

Over the past summer, Choi and Pei Qin ‘22 tirelessly worked to successfully to migrate all critical tools into AstroPy and into new course materials. Course aspects required to be migrated were identified, and respective Python notebooks to serve as working modules and coding tutorials to be integrated into weekly problems sets and research labs created; the work achieved can be viewed on GitHub repository. For those interested, mitigating the fact that Astropy packages rely on different version of Python, and limited hard drive space and processing power for the computationally intensive image processing of projects were notable issues posed.  

Still, this work was not in vain. While student feedback hasn’t been formally gathered, independent class projects—all the way through topic choice to final execution–already signal good outcomes.

“In terms of project topics, this year’s crop was by far the most ambitious I have seen or allowed in the dozen plus years that I have taught the class.”

-Philip Choi

This is likely because most of the student projects conducted simply wouldn’t have been feasible to realize with the previous software utilized in the course. Further, even though previous python experience was somewhat relevant to outcomes, students without prior programming experience appreciated getting a “real-world introduction” to coding and communal work allowed new users to effectively breach their learning gaps. The result, according to Choi, was that, “two of the five projects could serve as the basis of actual research papers and the other three could easily be launched into summer SURPs.”  

Another way of measuring the project’s success is through Qin’s reflection as a teaching assistant for the project. She noted she was thankful to put her knowledge and prior coding experience in astronomy to use while simultaneously fulfilling her passion of engaging in educational efforts. Indeed, she already plans to draw from this adaptable experience in her mentorship for other class in physics and CS, as well as her co-facilitation of the Peer Mentoring in STEM course. Qin reflects, “the intangible lessons I learned are so invaluable and yet so hard to come by through any means other than working so closely with a professor I respect and admire directly on a project like this.”