December 20, 2007

Hands-on Astronomy

Greg Davis ’08 and Dan Bazewicz ’09 learn scientific techniques with Michael Stark, assistant professor of physics

By Sara Costlow ’09

Two students got a hands-on look at the universe this semester in the Observational Astronomy course taught by Michael Stark, assistant professor of physics.

Physics major Greg Davis ’08 (Dallas, Texas) and biology major Dan Bazewicz ’09 (Hershey, Pa.) learned the techniques used to observe objects in the sky and to understand how astronomers use that information.

  • Greg Davis ’08 Observes the Sky

“Astronomy is a science of observation,” says Stark. “It is different from most physical sciences because you can’t control your experiments. You can just observe the universe as it is. Most astronomy courses concentrate on describing the universe and, perhaps, explaining abstractly how we know what we know.”

Stark stresses the goal of the course is to have the students make the connection between what astronomers know and how they come about that knowledge. This was done mainly by the students carrying out astronomical observations and experiments.

“Science is experimental,” says Stark. “Anything we claim to be true ought to be consistent with measurements we can make of the natural world. It is very important to me that our students have experience with using modern experimental methods to make scientific measurements. This course is an opportunity for me to expose students to a variety of modern scientific techniques and instruments.”

As well as getting hands-on experience, the students received a lot of one-on-one attention because of the small class size. Stark finds this especially interesting because the class can try experiments that Stark hasn’t done before. One experiment was measuring the rotation rate of the sun.

“We constructed a makeshift telescope to examine the sun’s spectrum and, using the department’s powerful spectrometer, looked at the small changes in the spectrum caused by the sun’s rotation,” says Stark.

Stark also stresses that the experiences the students gained in the course can translate to their other classes and life after graduation.

“The techniques of modern astronomy are applicable to many different fields and the data processing we have to carry out on the data we collect uses techniques that are common in many scientific and industrial applications,” he says. “Students going on in graduate school or scientific or engineering careers ought to be able to apply some of what they do in class directly to their work later on.”

  • Physics
  • Biology

posted in Academic News, Committed Teachers and Scholars, Faculty and Staff, News and Features, Students

tagged with , , , ,