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April 13, 2020
Dear friends,

I hope this email finds you and your loved ones safe and healthy.  As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCLA has moved to remote instruction, and we are teaching the 5th edition of the UCLA SETI course online.  Based on past experience and the challenges of remote instruction, the enrollment cap has been set at 25 students.  At the end of week 2, I am happy to report that we still have 25 students enrolled.  The class consists of 7 women and 18 men and the usual mix of majors that parallel the interdisciplinary nature of SETI: 6 engineering, 5 astrophysics, 5 computer science, 4 earth and planetary sciences, and other disciplines.  I am really excited about empowering these 25 additional students with new skills in astronomy, signal processing, computer science, and data analysis.

Remote instruction/learning is going well.  We use the Zoom videoconferencing platform, which allows all participants to see each other in Gallery mode and which requires a bandwidth of approximately 2 MBps.  My home office includes a fairly standard internet service over coaxial cable (60 MBps download, 5 MBps upload).  We have taken reasonable precautions against Zoombombing, which we have not experienced.  When lecturing, I share my iPad screen where I annotate lecture notes or derive equations with an Apple pencil and the Goodnotes software.  This setup replicates a whiteboard to a good approximation.  The students ask questions either by unmuting themselves or via the Zoom chat window.  When running interactive Python exercises, either I or the students can share a web browser window that shows both the code and the results.  We use the powerful Jupyter platform that lets students easily analyze and visualize data.  The storage server purchased last year with your and Michael Thacher's support (see the March 14, 2019 newsletter) is the key enabler of this effective remote learning environment.  Thank you!
Teaching the SETI course with Zoom and the appropriate virtual background.
We are taking five steps to counteract the lack of direct interaction in the computer lab.  First, I wrote a remote learning guide to describe the focus on supporting one another during the pandemic and a number of financial, instructional, and technical resources available to the students.  Second, I am upgrading the Jupyter notebooks to include additional text, figures, examples, and links to documentation.  Third, I am writing detailed solutions for each problem, which I provide after the students have worked through the problems on their own.  Fourth, we have formed a team of three instructors.  UCLA has not provided a teaching assistant (TA) for the course in the past, but I suggested that it might make sense to fund a TA this year.  This idea received a lot of internal support and the Dean approved the funding.  UCLA Graduate Student Paul Pinchuk is doing a phenomenal job as TA because he has a great command of the subject, is generally articulate and organized, and has previous experience as an unofficial TA for the course.  I have also asked Robert Geil, a UCLA computer science major who excelled in the course last year, to be the third instructor.  The three of us assist the students in solving exercises by circulating through "breakout rooms" that we create with the Zoom software.  Finally, at Robert's suggestion, we created a Slack channel for the course, which has been very effective at promoting interactions among students and instructors outside of the designated lecture sessions.  With all these improvements, I'd say that the course is progressing at least as fast as in previous years, and possibly faster.    
Although the Green Bank workshop honoring Frank Drake has been postponed, the 100 m telescope remains operational and we are eager to conduct our observations soon.  We will share the screen with the telescope control interface so that the students can participate in the observing.

To conclude, I would like to share some of the responses to a recent Twitter thread titled "Start a Science Fight".  Two highly regarded planetary scientists chimed in.  Larry Nittler opined "We will never see an unambiguous biosignature from an exoplanet" and Mark Wieczorek opined "We will never see an unambiguous biosignature on Mars".  My opinion is that technosignatures in the form of repeatable, narrowband or artificially pulsed emissions from an extraterrestrial emitter would be unambiguous.  What are your thoughts? 

I hope you remain safe and healthy.
Warm regards,

Jean-Luc Margot

Copyright © 2020 UCLA SETI Group. All rights reserved.

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