Did you ever stop to contemplate how Earth became a planet? Or how a cosmic event that occurred eons ago impacts what is happening in the present day? These are just some of the questions 14 juniors and seniors are considering this year in astronomy, a science elective that gives students an understanding of the cosmos beyond that of a standard earth science or physics course.
‘The Universe is Knowable’
Science teacher Michael Ryerson developed Blair’s astronomy course eight years ago, based upon his own background in the field. During his undergraduate days at the State University of New York at Geneseo, he majored in physics and astronomy and performed research on the computer simulation of star clusters. He has since earned a master’s degree in science education from the University of Montana, and, over the years, expanded the course from a half-year to a full-year elective.
“My number one goal in astronomy is to give students a sense of perspective about the universe,” Mr. Ryerson said. “The scale of time and space we are talking about is almost more than we can comprehend, but I want students to realize that in a science that is, literally and figuratively, so far away, we can use the same tools that we use in other sciences to understand natural phenomena. The universe is knowable.”
The course begins with an overview of topics like gravity, light and waves, and particle physics and an examination of the work of early astronomers. Then, students look to the skies to study the moon, our solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and beyond. Along the way, they learn about everything from planets, the life cycle of stars and rocketry to black holes, the Big Bang theory and relativity, the latter being topics that Mr. Ryerson says his students have been most excited to investigate over the years.
The stars and the mysteries of the universe have always fascinated Elise Sigety ’20, and she is enjoying delving into astronomy in Mr. Ryerson’s class. “Our discussions are often mind boggling as we learn about the vastness of the solar system and each unique and wonderful planet,” she said. “I am looking forward to the rest of the year!”
In & Out of the Classroom
Of course, this year astronomy meets in the newly expanded and upgraded Bogle Science Center, which opened in September after a yearlong, $9-million renovation. For the first time, Mr. Ryerson has a classroom dedicated to astronomy, allowing him to house the School’s large telescope where students can access it every class period, as well as display a variety of diagrams and charts. The classroom’s capacity for 100-percent darkness makes for especially realistic simulations of moon phases, the sun’s ability to illuminate the solar system as a single point of light and other concepts that are harder to visualize when light is coming from all directions.
“Taking this class in the new Bogle Science Center helps us to learn more productively because it provides the materials and spaces that challenge us to not just learn the what, but also the how and why,” observed Chloe Rayer ’20, who is taking astronomy to feed her interest in the sky, the solar system and the Earth. “The crazy thing I’ve already realized is how small we actually are compared to the enormous solar systems and universes, and how much goes unnoticed on the daily.”
Observation of what is occurring in the skies is key to the study of astronomy, and Mr. Ryerson encourages students to take notice of the moon and stars as they go about their lives. In addition, he and students head outside to Blair’s athletic fields once each month for nighttime telescopic viewing of the heavens. In the spring, students will take to the same fields to launch rockets they have built from kits and, for their final signature assessment, launch rockets they have designed and built from scratch.
Reflecting on the importance of studying astronomy, Mr. Ryerson noted that when students tackle any area of science, they begin to develop a scientist’s mindset and skills such as critical thinking and data assessment that are “hugely important to being able to function in society.” “Beyond that, astronomy gives students an appreciation of the forces that shaped planet Earth,” he said. “It spurs them to really think about something most people take for granted.”