CU Denver and Northglenn Students Chase the Great American Eclipse 

CU Denver and Northglenn Students Chase the Great American Eclipse 

Hands-on research inspires and amplifies understanding of the sun’s impact on earth-bound technology.

March 29, 2024

While thousands of people will travel April 8 to observe the last total eclipse seen from the contiguous United States for the next 20 years, University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) students and some local high school students will be part of a research study that will help us better understand how the sun impacts technology on earth. 

CU Denver Electrical Engineering Professor Mark Golkowski, PhD, is the lead of study funded by the National Science Foundation. He worked with Oleksiy Agapitov, a scientist at the Space Science Laboratory at UC Berkeley, to organize observation teams along the eclipse’s path of totality from Texas to New York. 

Collecting Data Nationwide

Students from CU Denver are preparing observation stations in Denver; Antlers, Oklahoma; and Ithaca, New York. Researchers from UC Berkeley will manage stations in Cleveland, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Austin, Texas. The stations will all be outdoors to get clean radio data. 

CU Denver electrical engineering student Audrey Whitesell worked with three students from Northglenn High School to make sure the equipment for the experiment will be protected against inclement weather. The high schoolers developed a shielding in their capstone project that will be used on the Denver monitoring station. And while this region will not experience totality, the team will be able to observe radio waves that traversed totality on their way to Denver. The work is a result of the Northglenn/CU Denver pipeline initiative which aims to get young people interested in STEM careers. 

When day turns into night for a few minutes on April 8, the research teams will use very-low-frequency (VLF) and extremely-low-frequency (ELF) remote sensing techniques to observe and record how the sun interacts with the ionosphere that surrounds our planet. When the sun or other solar weather flares up, it can interfere with the ionosphere which in turn can disrupt radio communications, knock out the electric grid, and interfere with other earthbound technology we rely on. 

“We know the sun impacts the ionosphere, but the solar eclipse gives us an opportunity to observe the process at much higher resolution, that’s what we are studying,” Dr. Golkowski said. “It’s a unique experience for students. They will get a chance to see a day-to-night cycle unfold before their eyes in a matter of a few minutes and use the information in computer modeling that will also help us understand and predict impacts from space weather.” 

CU Denver Engineering Professor Mark Golkowski, PhD, works with electrical engineering students Favour Ogbinaka (left) and Audrey Whitesell (right).

For Favour Ogbinaka, an electrical engineering major at CU Denver, and one of four students who will take measurements the day of the eclipse, the project is an opportunity of a lifetime. The first-generation student from Nigeria said he has been itching to put what he’s learned in the classroom into action. He is helping set up the site in Denver and will also travel to Oklahoma to help the team there. 

“The experience has been breathtaking, challenging, and educative,” he said. “Educative, as I am actively applying classroom knowledge to real-world situations. Challenging, due to the vast amount of information I still need to grasp, but I’m progressively understanding more as I dedicate time to the project. Breathtaking because this research is of national interest.” 

Creating a Pipeline 

For Northglenn students Matt Barrett, Kai Wolford, and Rye Taylor, the collaboration has helped cement their plans for careers in engineering. The students in Melissa Williford’s engineering class took Dr. Golkowski and his students on as clients in October to produce the shielding apparatus. The students worked through every stage of the project from research, to ordering materials, to assembling and redesigning until they finally produced the prototype that will be used.  

“I’m pretty excited,” said Barrett, who has already committed to CU Denver. “I want to go into mechanical engineering…work in aerospace on satellites that go into space, actually anything that goes into space. That’s why this was such a cool project for me.” 

Wolford said the most important things he learned on the project beyond engineering was how to pivot and redesign when things didn’t work out the way they thought they would.  

For Rye, the hands-on experience was exciting, and the project brought back fond memories of the first partial eclipse he saw in 2017, when he was in middle school.  “We all lined up in a field wearing our glasses,” he said. “We watched and then had to write down our observations. I’m looking forward to this one. I think we are all pretty excited.”  

For their teacher, the partnership with Dr. Golkowski, and other external partners, has been a game changer. As a former electrical engineer who worked in aerospace, she understands the need to make future scenarios real. 

“It just raises the bar and gives students a taste of the real world…and that’s exciting for them,” she said. “It helps them see possibilities.” 

That seems to be paying off for this team. Wolford has also committed to CU Denver with a major in bioengineering and an eye on a career in chemical engineering. Taylor won’t be a Lynx, but he will pursue civil engineering in college because he wants to help innovate and improve the safety of the nation’s bridges. 

Whitesell, who has been guiding the Northglenn students, will monitor the eclipse from Denver. She said she’s thrilled to be part of the project for her own professional development as well as to help the next generation of students discover the joy of applying their knowledge to solve real world challenges. 

Whitesell worked with her colleagues to make the instrument run autonomously without the need to be plugged in to the electrical grid. Because of the span of wavelengths detected, the electrical grid system that powers the instrument will cause interference. By isolating the system, this interference can be reduced. She also focused on transitioning to battery plus solar power, weatherproofing the system, and reducing the power draw needed to ensure the system can run for as long as possible.  

In addition to the mechanics of the project, she helped the Northglenn team troubleshoot ideas, set up times for them to come to the downtown campus to see the lab spaces, and coordinated areas for them to work on their project. 

“This has been an excellent experience,” she said. “I loved the hands-on experience from beginning to end of our specific project: selecting and ordering parts, troubleshooting, and integration. I’m looking forward to our testing coming up. And I’m very excited. I have not seen an eclipse before.” 

Building on Previous Work

Data collected from this year’s eclipse will add to work started in 2017, when Dr. Golkowski led a smaller team of students in observations of the eclipse as it made its way across parts of the United States. Like the 2017 event, teams will use the technology the U.S. Navy uses to communicate with its submarines for their research. 

The Navy has permanent VLF transmitters outside of LaMoure, North Dakota, and Cutler, Maine. They are primarily used to communicate with the U.S. submarine fleet but can also be used to detect changes in the ionosphere. Because the Navy continuously sends radio waves through the transmitters, students will see how those waves interact with the ionosphere during the eclipse. The data collected will be used in computer modeling that will advance the understanding of our ionosphere.