Star Gazers Sky's the Limit as More Students Study Astronomy

Article excerpt

It's 7:50 a.m., deep into the "night" in Kyle Stumbaugh's first-period astronomy class at Mehlville High School.

A Milky Way candy bar dangling from the ceiling represents its namesake galaxy. A red ornament, Mars. A gold and white ornament, a twinkling star. A shriveled balloon, a shrunken sun. A black and white paper circle, the moon. Two Styrofoam balls, Jupiter and Saturn, minus its rings.

"They fell off," Stumbaugh said, shaking his head. Stumbaugh's blue, squinty eyes are fixated on his homemade solar system. "Isn't it something?" he asks. Even better, he's teaching astronomy as a single course, not as part of a general science class. The Mehlville district decided to offer astronomy last year. Stumbaugh's class is full. Star Wars and Star Trek. Famous comets like Hale-Bopp and Halley. Space shuttle blasts. The Hubble Space Telescope. Solar system tours on the Internet. All have made more students and parents - both locally and nationwide - interested in a subject that people once thought only rocket scientists could grasp. Across the area, they're asking schools for more astronomy. This gives Stumbaugh, 36, of Belleville, opportunity for ingenuity, such as creating stars and planets from odds and ends. But what about that Christmas stocking that also hangs up there, lost in space. "That's left over from Christmas," he said. "I forgot to put it away." In Missouri, 31 public school districts offered astronomy as its own class during the 1995-96 school year, the most recent figures available. About 1,240 students registered for it. Ten years ago, 19 districts had astronomy and 963 students took it. No similar numbers exist for Illinois. Astronomy magazine has described school programs in San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass. Associate Editor Rich Talcott said he's noticed an increased interest in teaching astronomy to children and teen-agers. "Kids are tapping into an innate urge to learn about the universe," he said. And because there's more information on astronomy, parents and teachers feel more confident teaching young people. Brian Schaffer is a project supervisor for the St. Louis Science Center. He estimated that the center teaches astronomy each year to 1,350 students from city, county and private schools. Each year, students get more enthusiastic about the subject, Schaffer said. The hype over the re-release of Star Wars has made them even more eager. "Students are so impressed" with such movies, Schaffer said. "They want to know what's out there, which makes astronomy even more fun." Not necessarily easier to learn. "There's too much math," said Katherine Dabbs, 15, a sophomore in Stumbaugh's astronomy class. "And not enough stars." It's three minutes before class. Katherine sat at her friend's desk, set aside her breakfast of Nacho Doritos and pushed back her long, brown hair. She leaned forward and softly explained her interest in astronomy. One summer evening last year, Katherine and her friend were observing the sky. "Suddenly," she said, "we saw this huge - I mean huge - flaming ball of fire. We were shocked." Katherine asked her teacher about it. "Mr. Stumbaugh said it was probably a meteorite," she said. "I don't think he understands how big it was." Never mind that Stumbaugh has a bachelor's degree in physics from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and a master's in physical science from Eastern Illinois University. So far, her astronomy class hasn't discussed balls of fire. Students have been busy measuring the horizon and calculating the number of seconds in a year (31,536,000). Stumbaugh, lanky and bearded, joked to the class: "Wouldn't it be nice to get a penny a second?" Every Wednesday, from 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., if weather permits, Stumbaugh leads free astronomy viewing sessions for the public near the main gate of Mehlville High's football stadium, 3200 Lemay Ferry Road. Stumbaugh's orange, eight-inch Celestron telescope is ready for viewing any shenanigans in the sky - a falling star, for example. …