Montana State University

Teams compete in National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition at MSU

May 21, 2014 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition judge Mitch Hobish, left, and Justin Partyka of Hobart and William Smith Colleges test a pair of sunglasses Wednesday, May 14, 2014 during an event at Montana State University in Bozeman. The team from Hobart and William Smith designed their spectrograph to test the ability of sunglasses to protect eyes from harmful rays. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN – A team from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., won the top prize at the fourth National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition, held May 14-16 at Montana State University.

The competition, which is sponsored and hosted by the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC), puts students from colleges across the nation to the task of designing and building optical instruments to answer questions about the sun or other scientific topics. The team from MSU – with team members Jordan Creveling of Missoula, Blaine Ferris of Helena and Ahmet Kartal of Turkey (with adviser David Dickensheets) – earned the Best Spectrograph Design Award.

All seven of the teams competing were buoyed by clear skies, with the groups taking turns collecting data from the roof of AJM Johnson Hall. That information is then used to carry out experiments they designed.

“Students really threw themselves into the challenges of using their skills in optics design, physics, chemistry, mechanical and electrical engineering, and even computer science to conduct their experiments,” said Randy Larimer, deputy director of MSGC. “We even had a group that came out in the middle of the night and focused their spectrograph on the (reflected sunlight) of Venus and the moon. They really showed some out-of-the-box thinking and, best of all, they got some meaningful data.”

Spectrographs collect sunlight and separate out the wavelengths. Prisms are a simple form of spectrograph that breaks apart visible light, producing rainbows on walls and other surfaces. 

In addition, to using their spectrographs to see what sunlight can reveal, the students in the competition gave presentations of their scientific findings to a panel of judges. They also explained how they designed and built their spectrographs and what kind of outreach they conducted.

They were judged in five categories: best science, best build, best design, best presentation and best reuse of a spectrograph.

The competition is funded by an education grant associated with NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) mission, a satellite-based effort to better understand the sun that successfully launched in June, 2013. MSGC was chosen to design and carry out the competition because MSU is a key member of the IRIS team. During the competition’s first three years, MSGC played host to 120 students from 27 different teams.

MSU is a natural site for the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition because the university is a world leader in the areas of solar physics and developing optical systems, said Joe Shaw, a competition judge and an MSU professor of electrical engineering. MSU’s programs in physics and optical engineering draw top-notch students from around the world to Bozeman, which, due in large measure to MSU’s investments in those areas, has become a hub for the optics industry, said Shaw, who is director of the Optical Technology Center.

Joseph Carrock, a junior at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., said his experience at this year’s spectrograph competition in Bozeman had him strongly considering a graduate degree in engineering at MSU. For its effort the Hobart and William Smith team earned the competition’s top prize and a trip to participate in the RockOn Workshop in June. Hosted by NASA at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the weeklong workshop is a hands-on opportunity for university students to learn about the designing and building of scientific equipment used aboard NASA’s suborbital research rockets.

Ileana Dumitriu and Josh Nollenberg, both of whom teach in the physics department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said the experiences gained by their students in coming to the competition at MSU has paid dividends in recruiting new students to their department. The number of majors has more than doubled from 14 last year to 36 this year.

“The students get very excited when they get to do experiments with equipment they built with their own hands,” Dumitriu said. “Their enthusiasm for the solar spectrograph has been a great thing.”

This year’s competition awards and categories were:

Grand Prize Overall Award – “HWS Spectroscopy” from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Team members were: Michelle Gomez, Geneva, N.Y.; Christopher Demas of Manlius, N.Y.; Jeffrey Rizza of Geneva, N.Y.; Joseph Carrock of Holland Patent, N.Y.; and Justin Partyka of Andover, Mass. Advisers: Peter Spacher, Josh Nollenberg and Ileana Dumitriu.

Best Science Observation Award – “HWS Spectroscopy” from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Best Spectrograph Design Award – “MSU Spectrograph Team” from MSU. Team members: Jordan Creveling of Missoula; Blaine Ferris of Helena; and Ahmet Kartal of Turkey. Adviser: David Dickensheets.

Best Spectrograph Build Award – “Harding Solar and Atmospheric Spectroscopy Group” from Harding University. Team members: Brennan Thomason of Davidson, Mich.; Stephanie Inabnet of Post Falls, Idaho; Tamara Reed of Middleville, Mich.; Anna Shafer of Pinedale, Wyo.; Joshua Griffith of Marysville, Wash. Adviser: Ed Wilson, Jr.

Best Presentation of Results Award – “Team Charleston” from College of Charleston. Team members: Ryan Sullivan of Summerville, S.C.; Isaac Gould of Rockville, Md.; Eric Hofesmann of Summerville, S.C.; Collin Weiwadel of Summerville, S.C.; Charles McManus of Summerville, S.C. Adviser: Jeffrey Wragg.

Best Reuse of a Spectrograph Award – “Hoosiers NSSSC Team” from University of Southern Indiana.Team members: Aaron Williams of Washington, Ind.; Danielle Eckert of Jeffersonville, Ind.; Craig Roberts of Muncie, Ind.; Evan Taylor of Newburgh, Ind. Adviser: Glen Kissel.                               

Best Scientific Application and Relevance Award – “Spectrocelots! at the Disco” from University of Texas Brownsville. Team members: Francisco D’Lozano of Harlingen, Texas; Wahltyn Rattray of Brownsville, Texas; Stephanie Cohen of Brownsville, Texas. Adviser: Joey Key.     

Instrument Refinement Award – “Griz Spectacle” from University of Montana. Team members: Travis Glenn of Helena; Destini Vaile of Browning; Wesley Harmon of Polson; Elizabeth Hobbs of Redmond, Wash.; Jodi Pilgrim of Missoula; Ashton Zackus  of Missoula. Adviser: Phong Tran.

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371,