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'little green men' to premiere Sept. 29

No, it isn’t about aliens. While the title of the upcoming documentary “little green men” suggests an extra-terrestrial theme, it actually features life in our own backyard.

The film showcases student participants in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, a joint project between West Virginia University and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The high school students search for pulsars, or exotic stars, using radio astronomy data from the Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County, W.Va. Over the past nine years, the students have discovered seven pulsars.

Follow their journey through outer space on September 29 at 6 p.m. in the Mountainlair’s Gluck Theatre. A reception and Q&A will follow featuring director/producer Sarah JM Kolberg, producer and WVU astrophysicist Maura McLaughin, WVU astronomer Duncan Lorimer, NRAO education director Sue Ann Heatherly, high school educators and student participants.

“It's important for students to see their peers as role models, making actual contributions to science,” Kolberg said. “We have discoverers as young as 15—I think that provides students viewing the film with a real understanding that they, too, can make an impact on scientific research, even though they don't yet have a college degree or even advanced physics classes.”

The film’s producers hope the film increases scientific literacy for adults and students alike. In addition to the upcoming premiere, they plan to enter the documentary in scientific film festivals around the country.

“I hope the film challenges some of the stereotypes about teenagers and shows what they are capable of if given the right guidance and access,” Kolberg said. “I also hope it challenges stereotypes people hold about West Virginia—I think most people would be surprised to learn such sophisticated astronomical research is being conducted in West Virginia.”

The film’s title plays off of the nickname first attributed to an unknown radio signal discovered in 1967 by then-Cambridge University graduate student Jocelyn Bell. The term “pulsar” was created to describe the signal once scientists learned the signal was radio waves from a collapsed star rather than an alien communication.

Since its formation, the Pulsar Search Collaboratory has reached more than 2,000 students from schools in 20 states. Over 500 hours of data from the Green Bank Telescope are reserved exclusively for the students’ research and discoveries.

The PSC has 10 hubs across the United States with faculty and undergraduates traveling to participating high schools for workshops and trainings. The high school students also participate in video conferences and online discussion boards to share their research with their peers.

“We are reaching students from underrepresented populations who need more encouragement, and we are giving them role models to encourage their interest in STEM,” McLaughlin said. “It’s often difficult to recruit women in the fields of physics and astronomy, but the fraction of female physics and astronomy majors at WVU has grown from roughly 10 percent to 30 percent since the (PSC) began. The PSC is not solely responsible for this, of course, but I think it is making an important impact.”

The Pulsar Search Collaboratory was established in 2008 by McLaughlin, Lorimer and Heatherly. It was funded from 2008 to 2014 by the National Science Foundation’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program, and recently received a new award through the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program to establish hubs throughout the country. 

Learn more about the documentary and the Pulsar Search Collaboratory at lgmfilm.com.    

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