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
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
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
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
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
Stumbaugh's orange, eight-inch Celestron telescope is ready for
viewing any shenanigans in the sky - a falling star, for example. …