Undergraduate Non-Majors Present Planetarium Shows

Jun 24, 2013

For the first time, honors students in the introductory Astronomy 103 course used the Astronomy Department’s planetarium on the 7th floor of Sterling Hall to give 15-minute planetarium presentations to a group of their classmates. As Professor Christy Tremonti explains, “Amongst the top students in the course, there are always a few students who are highly motivated to earn honors credit. Professors typically have them carry out some additional work in the form of a small project. This time, we required these students to prepare a planetarium show on a topic of their choosing. Each student then presented his or her show to a group of classmates, who earned extra credit as an incentive for attending.”

After only a one-hour training session, the honors students learned to operate the planetarium projection systems by themselves. They then spent about a month developing and practicing their presentations. The students were also required to give a practice presentation to the teaching assistant or professor before their final presentation, which they found very helpful and which considerably improved their presentations. “The students showed initial concern for what seemed to them to be a fairly daunting task, but they quickly realized that operating the system was not so terrifying once they spent some time playing around with the controls. In the end, they made great use of the planetarium’s projection systems by successfully melding the use of both the star and video projectors interchangeably throughout their presentations. I think this experiment was a huge success,” says teaching assistant Paul Sell.

Chinese and English Creative Writing major Joey Borgwardt talked about light pollution in big cities.

  • The brightness of the night sky caused by street lights and inefficient energy use contributes to health issues including sleep deprivation, headaches, anxiety and sexual dysfunction. It also disorients pilots, drivers and ecosystems; disturbs migration patterns; and alters nocturnal animal behaviors.
  • Increased light pollution over the years has made it difficult for amateur astronomers and stargazers to see distant objects in the night sky.
  • What we can do to fight light pollution: use full cutoff light fixtures and motion sensor lighting and ask our legislators to vote to lower light intensity.

English major Ciera Sugden focused on debunking common misconceptions about viewing the night sky.

  • Sirius is the brightest star, not Polaris, and stars are not only out at night.
  • While we think constellations are close together, they are not. This is because we see the stars in projection at various distances. Constellations are based on our viewpoint. We created the concept of them.
  • Why stars twinkle has nothing to do with the stars themselves. The twinkling is caused by the turbulent atmosphere, which bends and refracts the light.

History major and amateur astronomer John Rizner discussed astronomy in pre-Hellenistic Egypt.

  • The Egyptians used the night sky to guide their lives. Astronomy played an important role in their culture.
  • The Egyptians’ food supply relied on the rivers and the three seasons when the rivers would flood and recede and the harvest would take place. Astronomers would coordinate these through the stars.
  • The pyramids had astronomy motifs. The temple faced the North Star, and its entrance and shafts pointed north to represent everlasting life.

Anthropology major Claire Steffen talked about precession and the zodiac.

  • The topic is a good example of the science of astronomy versus the pseudoscience of astrology.
  • Precession is a change in the rotation of the earth. When tops spin, they wobble, like the earth, but slower.
  • The discrepancy between Babylonian and real dates is due to precession.

Actuarial Science major Michael Olsen focused on navigation using the stars.

  • In a pre-GPS time, it was only possible to figure out your position day or night using the sun and a clock set at your departure location.
  • The sun is in different positions as the earth rotates. The time difference was used to see positions.
  • At night, the stars help. Polaris, the North Star, doesn’t move, and stars have coordinates.

“The Sterling Hall planetarium is both an educational and fun resource that even undergraduate students can run without much effort on the part of the professor or teaching assistant,” says Sell. “For these students willing to make the extra effort, using the planetarium is an excellent part of the active learning process that I expect will remain with them their entire lives.”

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