When I found out that today is National Astronomy Day, I immediately thought about one of my favorite classes in high school. Even though our school was rural and set amidst corn fields, we had a legit planetarium and an astronomy course that was offered as an elective. I loved that chilly, dark room with its red pleather circular bench seating. I can even vaguely recall the distinct smell, like slightly burning projector machine heat trapped in a windowless room.
I would stretch out and gaze up at all that is our wondrous sky as it whizzed around above me, letting Mr. Hermann’s monotone voice nearly lull me to sleep. Well, let’s be honest. He was successful from time to time, and I succumbed to a gentle snooze as a sleepy seventeen-year-old; but I also learned a whole bunch while my eyes were open, and I still greatly appreciate my little podunk planetarium.
For a little history lesson, Astronomy Day was created in 1973 by Doug Berger, who was the president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California. As with other holidays made up by people, its intention was to raise awareness and interest in all things astronomy, which is the study of celestial bodies and non-Earthly phenomena. This includes planets, stars, and asteroids, along with events related to eclipses and meteor showers. Just to name a few.
In the Spring, the holiday is held on the Saturday closest to the first quarter moon between the months of April and May. So, today. In the Autumn, it occurs on the Saturday closest to the quarter moon between September and October. This year it falls on (no pun intended) October 5, 2019, so mark your calendars and look for events in your local area.
As for my local area…I’ve been living in Hagerstown, Maryland for almost six years, but I only discovered that we have a planetarium here halfway through that time. Since then, I have been an advocate for the William M. Brish Planetarium, attending several weeknight programs that are open to the general public. I thought it would be a neat-o idea to get in touch with someone associated with the planetarium to highlight them for this post, and so enters Mr. Christopher Kopco.
Chris graciously and enthusiastically accepted my offer of being featured for this blog; and he provided fantastic, in-depth responses to the questions that I posed, which makes my job of writing this piece that much easier. Thank you again, Chris, for your participation!
Chris Kopco is a Planetarium/STEM Resource Teacher within the Washington County Public Schools (WCPS) system. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the acronym STEM, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Naturally, the first question I asked was something along the lines of, what does your position entail? Apparently, a great deal. Chris is responsible for all of the planetarium’s scheduling, lesson planning, program creation, teaching of said programs, and the setting up/breaking down for related activities.
He also heads up the STEM Connectors Network, which is a group of STEM leaders from each school in Washington County K-12. He says that the mission of this program is to support and expand STEM in every classroom in the county’s public schools through developing STEM leaders at each school site. This includes providing professional development and materials for teachers throughout the county.
Furthermore, Chris is in charge of organizing an annual STEM Challenge Event held at Williamsport High School in Williamsport, Maryland. Students from the high school and some surrounding schools, including Springfield Middle, and Williamsport, Hickory, Lincolnshire and Fountain Rock Elementary Schools, congregate for “a day full of STEM challenges and experiences centered around a theme, such as the Civil War, the C&O Canal and Astronomy,” illustrates Chris. Here’s a nifty write up and video from last year’s event!
I also asked Chris to tell me more about what is offered to WCPS students and the general public at the planetarium. He explains that a school group usually starts off in the planetarium where the kiddos can look at and learn about the night sky and constellations. There is a problem-solving activity for them to work on together, and students often get to use some form of technology in the process. This may include science simulations, digital measurement tools or robotics kits, such as LEGO WeDos, Spheros, or Ozobots. I won’t even pretend to know what all of these hip gadgets are – but boy have things changed since I was a tween! After a lesson that can run anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, students review what they have learned to solve the challenge with a full-dome video presentation that relates to the challenge of the day.
For the general public, i.e. programs that I have seen at the planetarium, Chris runs a current night sky tour and a full-dome video program. Chris explains, “our current planetarium operating system allows us to immerse people in the wonders of the night sky, visit planets, see what it might be like to visit a black hole, and many other amazing things that you can’t experience anywhere else!” Want to catch an evening show? Click here to see what’s coming up. For a very reasonable $2 per student and $3 per adult, you can cozy up with the whole family under the magic of the dome.
My remaining questions for Chris were geared towards learning more about him as a person, and how he came to end up being where he is today.
Of course I had to ask, what does astronomy mean to you? Chris shares, “Astronomy to me means exploration. It’s the great unknown. What I truly love about astronomy is how we can be so sure that we understand something, but new observations can turn what we know on its head in an instant.” He goes on to explain, “Recently there have been a lot of articles out about how recent data doesn’t really support what we expect with the rate of expansion from our current models. The fact that we have to go back and revisit something like this and that new understandings may be just around the corner is really exciting! I love the mystery and wonder of what’s out there, and that there’s so much more to discover than any other scientific field.”
Chris attributes two things to being catalysts for sparking his interest in space. The first is a small telescope that his father gifted him in his youth. The capabilities of the telescope and being able to “see that there was a whole other world so close that you couldn’t go and visit yourself, but you could use that small telescope to see the features” led to more questions and curiosities. The second thing he attributes is black holes. Back when they were more of a mysterious theory without the evidence we have today, “the idea of a place in space with so much gravity that even light couldn’t go fast enough to escape, and all of the possibilities of what lie within, sparked my imagination,” he shares. In conjunction, Chris believes that being a Star Wars fan as a young buck helped cultivate his imagination of what lies beyond.
I’m always curious to hear about who other people admire and find inspiring. Chris notes that his parents are high on his list of personal admiration. He shares that neither of them went to college; however, it was instilled early on in all of their children (Chris has three sisters) that this would be expected. While teaching middle school, Chris realized that not everyone shares this expectation or believes they have the ability to pursue higher education. This has inspired Chris to work harder at helping students develop the desire to attend a college, trade school or other advanced training after graduation.
I found it endearing that he also mentions Chuck and Susan Jackson, short-term neighbors who left a lasting impression on him. His words are quite complimentary when he says, “Susan and Chuck lived out their faith like no one I had ever met before, using every opportunity to make life better for others, and never asking for anything in return.” He adds, “They only lived beside us for about a year or so before they had to move back to western PA where they were originally from, but in that short time they provided a fantastic model of how I want to live my life.” (If only I could say the same about my neighbors!)
Professionally, Chris gives a shout out to Fraser Cain and Pamela Gray, who have produced the podcast Astronomy Cast for over a decade now. He expresses, “They have created a resource that makes astronomy accessible and enjoyable for anyone who has an interest in astronomy.” I had to chuckle when he further embellishes, “Often when someone is very knowledgeable about a subject, they can come off as pompous, arrogant, or even just dull. Fraser and Pamela have taken some really deep topics and made them fun and interesting, and they always seem genuine in their presentation.” Remember when I mentioned Mr. Hermann’s nap-inducing tempo of teaching at the beginning? Highly intelligent man and magical material, but his presentation definitely lacked some pizzazz.
When posed with a question regarding space-related breakthroughs that he hopes come to fruition in the near future, Chris is very excited about all da moons! Well, in our solar system, at least. He shares that icy Europa (of Jupiter) was the first one that got him pumped up about moon exploration, and he goes on to say, “After that, my interest turned to Titan, with its lakes and streams of ethane and methane; and how these two compounds that are liquids here on Earth, are part of a cycle very much like our water cycle here on Earth.” Other moons on his radar include Enceladus (of Saturn), Triton (of Neptune) and Io (also of Jupiter). In case you didn’t know, we adore moons, too, and pay homage to the four orbiting Jupiter with our beautiful Galilean jewelry!
Following the previous question, I asked Chris if he has a favorite celestial object floating around up yonder. He replies, “Aside from the moons listed above, I have to go with Mimas (of Saturn) as my favorite celestial object. As a Star Wars fan, you can’t go wrong with a moon that looks an awful lot like the Death Star; even though the first photos showing Mimas looking that way didn’t even exist until Voyager I, three years after the original Star Wars movie was released!” It makes you wonder if George Lucas has some kind of cosmic connection (maybe a high-powered third eye telescope?) that gives him the upper, and outer space, edge.
As for future travel plans to experience astronomy-related phenomenon, Chris (who admits he’s actually more of a comfy homebody) has ambitions to go to the Southern Hemisphere one day to see the constellations we can’t view up here in the North. While in the vicinity, he would like to hopefully gaze upon the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, which are two irregular dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. Fun Fact: I had the literal awe-inspiring good fortune to drink in the Milky Way with my eyeballs last year for the first time in my life – twice actually! I cried both times.
I wrapped up my inquisitive questioning by querying about some additional information for local resources/places/clubs/activities for people who want to learn more about astronomy. He mentions the TriState Astronomers, which is a group of local amateur astronomers who meet at the William M. Brish planetarium every third Wednesday of the month at 7:00 p.m. (with a hiatus during the months of June, July and August for summer break). If you want to join in the stargazing games in September, here’s a link with more info!
I like that Chris also acknowledges the Discovery Station in downtown Hagerstown, which I have visited and, yes, it’s pretty rad. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just for little nuggets to learn something, because grown folk will also be pleasantly stimulated by the hands-on activities and exhibits they provide. Finally, Renfrew Park in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania is on his list of suggestions. Apparently, there are some great astronomy presenters from time to time, so if you’re within range, keep an eye out for upcoming events.
I’ll close by sharing Chris’s words of wisdom for the next generation of curious minds interested in space-related concepts. He says, “...never give up wondering and learning. A lot of what we learn comes from a sense of wonder and wanting to know more.”
To Chris directly: I think I speak for more than just myself when I say it’s been a pleasure unraveling you in this getting-to-know-ya post. Thank you so, so much for all you do in the field of astronomy, for the kids within the school system and the greater community. Maybe one day we can throw a space party together. I’ll let you planet!
Want to see if there’s a planetarium near you? Here’s a link of all US planetariums (and some worldwide).
And with that, we wish you a Happy Astronomy Day! Happy stargazing, folks.