June 23, 2024

Astronomy is an exciting subject for many students. After all, who doesn’t like to stare up at the stars at night?

All undergraduates at California Baptist University are required to take a lab science class as a general education credit, and the astronomy classes at CBU offer an exciting choice. Interactive technology is used by students in the lab where they have the opportunity to take their own photos of stars, planets, moons, galaxies and other celestial phenomena using professional telescopes.
In the lab for Astronomy I (PHY113), students use a program called Skynet (yes, named after the artificial intelligence from “The Terminator”).

Skynet allows students to access professional telescopes from many locations all over the world, the prominent one being in Cerro Tololo, Chile. They are also able to take pictures of the celestial objects on demand. Students can expect pictures back usually within 24 hours, sometimes even instantaneously (as long as the object is visible at that time of the year).

Jasmine Severi Earth’s moon, taken on the PROMPT5 telescope in Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, Chile, using UNC’s Skynet system. Students in the PHY113 Lab capture images of celestial objects using the Skynet system through the university.

Skynet operates through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dan Reichert built the PROMPT Telescopes for the purpose of experimental gamma ray research, and he filed for a National Science Foundation grant so students could use these professional research telescopes to encourage people into the STEM fields.

Dr. James Buchholz, professor of mathematics and physics, teaches CBU’s Astronomy I and Astronomy II classes. He talked about the benefits of astronomy not only to science majors, but also to all CBU students.

“What makes (astronomy) exciting for some people to take is the technology,” Buchholz said. “Let’s say you’re not a science major, and you’re in the arts. This is the perfect class for you to take because while we used to — and still do — push the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) but now we’re promoting STEAM fields where the ‘A’ is Arts. So it’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. And this is the perfect STEAM class because we’re mixing these beautiful pictures and trying to learn the artistic version of it and then pull science out of those pictures, too.”

Seth Kerchner, senior business administration major, said his favorite image he has captured in the lab is of Saturn.

“Saturn is always a delight to see,” Kerchner said. “The rings are just so strange and mysterious. Why are there rings? Why are they so perfect? And why are some of them braided together? All these wonderful mysteries are carried in those images, even if you can’t see such things in the pictures themselves.”

Kerchner said his interest in medieval cosmology inspired a greater interest in astronomy and inspired him to take the class.

“I love the old medieval cosmology,” Kerchner said. “It is, of course, extremely scientifically outdated and a bit ridiculous. However, there is still a beauty in it which captures the wonder of the cosmos as little else can. I was inspired to explore the truth of the universe, while still seeking to bring out the beauty in it. To do so, I needed an actual understanding of the universe that was right. I believed then as I do now that truth is stranger than fiction. I have been quite justified in the notion. But the fact remains that, at base, I chose to take astronomy because I love the stars and wanted to become acquainted with their true mystery, hinted at in the old cosmology.”

Paige Haynes, senior elementary education major, said she took Astronomy I as one of her major’s requirements, but that it also sounded fascinating and that it was enjoyable to learn something new. She took the class in spring 2022, and she is doing the lab in the fall semester.

Her favorite of the images she’s taken so far in the lab is of the moon, and she praises the technology that allowed her to take these images and encourages students to take the class.

“I think Skynet is innovative,” Haynes said. “It’s a highly intellectual piece of software that allows us to get our images quickly and accurately. I would 100% recommend this class because you learn so much about not only our universe, planets and solar system, but (also) the history — and every little thing in between — that you wouldn’t have thought of without taking this course. I would like students to know that this lab expands your knowledge and challenges you in ways that other labs can’t.”

Buchholz thinks the Skynet technology used in the lab is a wonderful tool for students, but he would also like for CBU to one day have its own observatory so students could get a more hands-on experience. No plans have moved forward on this front, but Buchholz is still hopeful and thinks it could be a great attraction for CBU.

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