Written by Taralyn Caudle

Auburn University (AU) is now offering a new online course, “Introduction to Spectral Diagnostics” as a part of the workforce development arm of the CPU2AL research grant.  The course was developed, in part, as a response to the observable need for more training in the area of spectral diagnostics, as well as increased exposure to the variety of research conducted by CPU2AL collaborators.


As CPU2AL developed, it became apparent that the areas covered by the grant - plasma, space, bio, and atomic physics, might not be familiar to all participants.  So, Dr. N. Ivan Arnold, Post Doctoral Fellow, AU Physics and his colleagues, Dr. Stuart D. Loch, Professor, AU Physics and Dr. Edward E. Thomas, Jr., Associate Dean for Research, COSAM, AU, proposed a series of seminars, lectures, and courses to help fill in the gap, including the “Introduction to Spectral Diagnostics.”


The course actually evolved from an existing course, “Astronomical Spectroscopy,” taught by Dr. Loch as a one-semester special topics class focusing on quantum mechanics and atomic physics.  Here, advanced undergraduate and graduate students are introduced to the physics and mathematics required to analyze astronomical spectra and spectroscopic techniques.


Noting that it would be useful for CPU2AL members to have a strong background in spectral diagnostics, given the anticipated non-invasive diagnostics work on the grant, Dr.Loch proposed adapting his course to focus on laboratory plasmas and spectroscopic diagnostics.  


The resulting course attempts to:


  1. Give participants the basics to understand the atomic processes in low-temperature plasmas that give rise to spectral line emission.

  2. Provide a basic background in spectrometers and the hardware required to collect spectra.

  3. Offer an introduction to the techniques required to analyze spectral line profiles and ratios.

  4. Provide participants with the tools (code) required to analyze spectral data and offer tutorials on how to use them.


Well thought-out and highly curated, the course is designed to be as interactive and self-paced as possible.  With 10-12 self-contained modules (and new modules in development), each includes an introduction video, several pages of web content focused on a specific sub-topic, an assessment quiz, and a homework problem designed to help students apply the content covered in the module to a real laboratory situation.  Guided video examples are also provided, whenever possible.


In addition, for problems that require data analysis and/or code development, screencasts for auxiliary problems are provided to guide students in the right direction.  Several embedded interactive web tools have also been developed to help students see the results of applying these techniques in real time.


“Basically, our goal with this course is to take someone who has a limited background in spectroscopy and give them the tools to be able to collect and analyze spectral emission from a low-temperature plasma in order to diagnose plasma parameters,” says Dr. Arnold. ”We also hope that once someone has completed the course, they will have the necessary background to develop more specialized diagnostics tooled to their specific needs.” 


There has already been some discussion about extending the class to a full-length university course, but focused on low-temperature and laboratory plasmas.  In the meantime, ongoing refinement of the current course will continue over the next several months. The long-term goal is to see the course become a full-fledged low-temperature diagnostics course that includes techniques beyond the spectroscopic line ratio and wavelength diagnostics currently covered.


All three professors are very pleased with the course as well as the results from students who have been enrolled in the course, particularly the practical aspect of the modules, where participants gain experience running the modeling and diagnostic codes.  


Highlighting the original intent of the course, Dr. Arnold concludes, “It has already been of great benefit to the research on the grant, allowing people interested in plasma spectroscopy to get a background that then makes a collaboration on their spectral observations very productive.”