Thursday, May 24, 2001

Skywatching: Navigating the night sky

Students learn about the heavens while training to be planetarium guides

By Neil Batra, Claire Bernard, Dina Coloma and Anna Risch
Enquirer contributors

        Learning about the stars and constellations in school is a lot harder to do in the daytime. In John Berno's class at North Avondale Montessori, we don't have that problem. We can go inside the class planetarium to see the night sky.

        In the corner of the classroom, we have set up a 6-foot dome made of cardboard and covered with trash bags to keep out the light. Just crawl inside and welcome to the Polaris Planetarium!

        Dean Regas from the Cincinnati Observatory Center has been working with our class once a week for the last two months. He has told us stories about constellations we can see in the spring sky including Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, Leo the Lion and Orion. To help tell these ancient star stories, Mr. Regas had us pose as constellations and act out the stories.

    Students at North Avondale Montessori would like everyone to explore the stars. To start, get in touch with one of these groups.
    Cincinnati Observatory Center, Mount Lookout, 321-5186,
    Wolff Planetarium, Burnet Woods, 751-3679,
    Drake Planetarium, Norwood High School, 396-5578,
    Cincinnati Astronomical Society, Near Mitchell Memorial Forest, 474-2659,
        “They're great actors,” Mr. Regas says. “I haven't seen such a wonderful Orion and Seven Sisters in a long time.”

        The four of us have qualified to be official planetarium guides after completing a constellation project. We drew all of the circumpolar constellations (the stars that never set in the northern sky) and many of the seasonal constellations such as Leo, as well as researched several star myths.

        Then we had to write up a 10-minute presentation, practice it and memorize it.

        For the next few weeks we will be giving planetarium shows to our fellow students in first through sixth grade. Because the planetarium seats only five comfortably, we'll be pretty busy.

        Our teacher, Mr. Berno, says he is really excited about this project.

        “It's wonderful to see my students teaching others,” Mr. Berno says. “They have learned and researched everything on stars and constellations.”

[photo] Dean Regas (sitting on the chair) visited North Avondale Montessori school to help students learn more about astronomy.
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        Inside the dome, we talk about six major constellations of spring: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Corona Borealis, Bootes and Leo. We show the students how to find Polaris, or the North Star, and two brighter stars called Arcturus and Spica. Most students have never been in a planetarium before and are amazed to find all the constellations Mr. Regas has talked about.

        Our favorite part of the planetarium show is telling stories. And our favorite story is about Cassiopeia. According to myth, Cassiopeia was a very beautiful queen of Ethiopia. In case you forgot how beautiful she was, she would remind you every five or 10 seconds. The gods did not appreciate such vanity, and when she died they placed her form in the sky — not much of a punishment.

        However, as the stars change positions every night, half the time she is sitting all nice and proper on her throne and the other half, she is upside-down. As you may know, it is very difficult to be upside-down and beautiful at the same time.

        After finding Cassiopeia in the dome, we simulate how the stars seem to spin around Polaris every day. Students love this part of the show because they get dizzy watching the stars go from east to west.

        At the end of the program, we give each student a pack of constellation pictures to color. If they complete their packet, they are rewarded with a stellar treat (a Milky Way candy bar).

        Our class is taking a field trip to the Cincinnati Observatory Center at the end of the month. There, we will see their two very old telescopes and observe the sun safely through white light and hydrogen alpha filters.

        (Mr. Regas is available to visit our classroom often, thanks to a grant from the Jergens Co. “Because of tight school budgets, I usually visit a class once or twice a year,” Mr. Regas says. “But thanks to this grant, I've been able to really get some students excited about astronomy.”)

       Skywatching is a monthly column by Dean Regas, educational outreach coordinator at Cincinnati Observatory Center. This month, the guest authors are fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students at North Avondale Montessori School.


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