Finding that one special star

Rehoboth Christian students Southwest stars, find fun in astronomy

By Shondiin Silversmith
Navajo Times

REHOBOTH, N.M., January 17, 2013

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(Times photo - Shondiin Silversmith)

TOP: Calvin College astronomy student Rick McWhirler talks with Rehoboth Chirstian Middle School students about the different levels of brightness that could be seen in the data.

SECOND FROM TOP: Astronomy student Hannah Pagel of Calvin College sits with her group of students as they shift through hundreds of star images hoping to find that one variable star.





T he stars don't go unnoticed in the Southwest because it has dark clear skies that people from across the nation have come to admire.

College students from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. have come to the area for that very reason as part of a course called "Astronomy of the Southwest."

It is through that class that they shared their interest in stars when they presented an astronomy lesson for the middle school science class of Rehoboth Christian School held Monday.

Calvin College Professor Larry Molnar visited the school with his class of 10 students from his astronomy course. Molnar explained that his course allows his students to use the different telescopes.

"This is just a place of beautiful skies, dark and clear," Molnar said adding that this course also allows the students to look at the earth as a planet and gives the opportunity to learn more about the people of the southwest.

Molnar started off the class discussion by explaining to the seventh and eighth grade students of Rehoboth Christian Middle School that they would be talking about "variable stars".

A variable star is a star that can change its brightness, and the brightness of a star can change due to three possible modals, said Molnar.

One possibility is rotation where the dots found on a star affects the stars levels of brightness. Another possibility is when two stars are orbiting around each other, and the third possibility is when a star is pulsating, but each of those possibilities affects the stars brightness level.

"Most stars don't change they just look the same from one day to the next. 999 out of a 1000 stars might do that, but the last star might do something really dramatic and different, get much brighter, get much fainter," Molnar explained. "There are many interesting stars like that that have not been catalogued because people haven't taken the time to sit and watch and wait, but that's something we can do with that small telescope we have."

"We spent the whole night looking at different places in the sky, each with many stars and something interesting might happen. The wonderful thing about real science is you don't know what it's going to be yet," Molnar said. "We're going to show the kids what our students have found and have them look at some stars and see if they can find something of their own."


Molnar split the kids into six groups allowing each of them to look through data collected from the telescope at Rehoboth.

He wanted each of the kids to shift through the variety of stars to see if they could find a variable star.

"One by one the computer is showing them the brightness of an individual star and how it changed through the course of the night. On average nothing changes."

"It was usable for everybody," said Calvin College junior Daniel Van Noord, who created the Fitz Fuller and Data Retrieval System Software used to analyze the stars. "That was part of the reason why I created the software. I am really hoping it instills not only an enjoyment in astronomy but in science in general."

But Molnar said by looking at all the data, there is always a chance that they will find that "one star that does something special."

With luck two groups from the first and second period were able to find that one star, and Molnar said that was amazing.

"I was really happy that the kids found a variable star," Van Noord said because it is not always guaranteed they will find. "Whenever you can get middle school or high school kids excited about science, it is a good thing."

"Science is cool and fun," said Van Noord on what he hopes the students take from their presentation.

"They want to find their own new star," Molnar said about the students of Rehoboth. "I hope they find science is fun and that discovery is fun."

"One of the main things that we try to teach in middle school science is that science is an exploration," said Rehoboth science teacher Chris Huizinga on why he wanted Molnar's class to present their findings to his seventh- and eighth-grade classes. "You're trying to find out new information and you're trying to expand your knowledge of the world and the universe around you, this is a great example of students actively doing that."

Huizinga said he hopes his students were able to take away from the presentation that the stuff they are learning in the classroom can be applied to real life scientific searches and discoveries.

"It's not contained to just the science classroom, but it's useable outside. It's something that matters."

Huizinga said the most enjoyable thing about teaching his students about astronomy is that "When they look up at the night sky it's beautiful," and they will be able to appreciate that. "They broaden their view of the night sky."

"I thought it was really interesting learning about all the different kinds of stars out there and the brightness of them. It was really cool," said Brianna Guerrero, 14, student of Rehoboth Christian Middle School. "There are a lot out there and we don't really pay attention to them (stars)."

"I enjoyed the fact that we actually got to look up our own stars and figure out what type of model it was," said Selena Deogado, 13, about the different photos each of the students got to analyze through the software presented.

Added Molnar, "I love just being here because it's beautiful country. I love being here because we get clear skies."

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