UM Computer Science Students Create Astronomy Teaching Tool

May 09, 2016

A website designed by UM computer science students allows viewers to track planetary orbits.MISSOULA – Six University of Montana computer science seniors have reached for the stars by launching an interactive website to help teach physics and astronomy.

The website allows faculty to load a solar system to the page and have their students adjust the size, density, gravity, etc. of the stars and planets to learn about orbits, habitable zones around stars and more. Site visitors also can zoom in and out and track orbits on the simulation, and anyone who wants to save their own simulations can create an account.

UM students Alexander Dunn, Aaron Cameron, Benjamin Campbell, Dillon Wood, Michael Kinsey and Rebecca Faust worked on the project as part of their Advanced Programming: Theory and Practice II class, taught by computer science Professor Joel Henry. They also collaborated with Diane Friend, a lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Building on a rudimentary software product Cameron and Kinsey previously had developed and asking an astronomy professor about valuable features and requirements, the students divided up the work into three parts: the server, the visual interface and the simulator. Once each part was complete, they brought everything together into a website.

“For the most part, each of us were dealing with at least one framework or web technology that we hadn’t worked with before, so we ran into learning curves along the way,” Cameron said.

Over the course of spring semester, the students logged 478 hours of work planning, designing, developing and deploying the application.

Cameron said he hopes the tool will be used as an improvement to existing applications by STEM educators to teach physics and math concepts in planetary physics.

“It is a tool that is equally fun and educational, which serves as an interesting way to introduce students to planetary physics,” Cameron said.

Unlike many other technological tools, the application also is fairly timeless.

“The tools currently available are developed in technologies that are no longer supported,” Campbell said. “As time progresses these tools will become nonfunctional. Because our application is written with modern technologies it will be widely available for the next generation of students to use.”

To view the project, visit


Contact: Joel Henry, professor, UM Department of Computer Science, 406-243-2218,