Local teachers get lessons in astronomy
Jul. 21, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Fighting clouds of bugs and hoping clouds of precipitation didn't move in and obscure the view, about 20 Lee County elementary and middle school teachers spent this past Wednesday night stargazing.

The group met up at dusk at Southern Lee High School as local amateur astronomers, as well as professionals from UNC-Chapel Hill's Morehead Planetarium, set up their equipment. There were binoculars which gave a high-definition view of the moon and small telescopes which could go into even greater detail among the night sky. And then there was the telescope so powerful that one could look into it and see a crisp image of Saturn, its individual rings and dots which might've been some of its moons.

"It's real," one teacher said as she stepped away from the telescope. "It's like someone just put up a picture on the lens."

"Wow," remarked another. "That's awesome."

"Until you see it, you don't really realize what's out there," said a third teacher.

Everything was set up thanks to a grant the district received in 2011 to give its 3-8 grade science teachers a better grounding in various topics. This is the third and final summer of the grant, in which teachers are studying astronomy and chemistry, said Carol Chappell, director of K-5 Instruction for Lee County Schools.

Lee County was one of only four districts in the state to have received the three-year, $525,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Chappell said nearly every elementary teacher and middle school science teacher will be able to participate this year in one of two week-long sessions.

When the district received the grant three years ago, Chappell told The Herald that barely any 3-8 grade teachers teaching science had gotten the chance to seriously study science after leaving college, so even abridged courses like these, which are taught by professors or PhD students from UNC and N.C. State, could do wonders.

One teacher who first started during the first year of the grant said Wednesday night he's sure the summer classes help him do better. Aaron Baer, 28, will be going into his third year at East Lee Middle School in August, where he teaches sixth grade science.

"I love these seminars," he said. "They are a lot of fun. Astronomy was one of the last classes I took in college, so it's still kind of fresh. But it's good to have a refresher."

In addition to the stargazing, in which teachers gazed out at tiny dots in the night sky, unfathomably away, they also got a sense for just how tiny they themselves are.

Earlier in the week, the group toured a model of the solar system set up on the Southern Lee campus, in which about 1,000 yards — the length of 10 football fields — separated the sun from the outer reaches of our planetary neighborhood. In that model, Earth was the size of a peppercorn.

They also made 600 balls of playdough, all roughly the size of a marble, and had to guess how many it would take to create each planet. Jupiter took a few hundred balls to make; Earth took one fourth of one ball. To make the sun on that same scale, organizers said, they would've had to go out and buy an extra several thousand dollars worth of playdough. In real life, the sun accounts for 99.86 percent of the mass in the solar system — and there are a lot of stars which are much larger.

But learning about science doesn't have to be all numbers and scales, Chappell said — especially for younger children. So she's looking into buying copies of a book on Galileo Galilei, the famed Italian astronomer who died in 1642 and was censored and jailed by the Catholic Church for his work but is now regarded as one of the most important scientists ever. Chappell said she hopes to have every third grader read it because the book combines science with lessons on history and European culture.

"We're trying to integrate reading, writing, science and math," she said.