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Astronomy class appeals to Bethel College students

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. - The Universe and its Structure, one of Bethel College’s popular January interterm classes, drew 37 students from all disciplines during its first year in Krehbiel Science Center. "There is always a mix of students," says Tracy Tuttle, assistant professor of physics, who has taught an introductory astronomy class for 10 of his 11 years at Bethel College. "It makes this class unique. We have students from many backgrounds and usually some adults taking it as continuing education.

"There are lots of people who have a passing interest in astronomy, and this is a chance to pursue it [in depth] for a short period of time," he continues. "Some classes lend themselves really well to the January term format and this is one of them. Students can immerse themselves in astronomy for a whole month."

John Eads, a senior restorative community justice major from Denver City, Texas, says, "This class met my expectations for mental stimulation in the first five minutes."

Like Eads, senior English major Bekah Trollinger from Bluffton, Ohio, took the astronomy course for general education credit. She enjoyed the "intellectual stimulation" of the class. In addition, she says, "Tracy was good at explaining complex things in ways that were easy to understand."

The class keeps evolving, according to Tuttle. "When your subject is the universe, there’s never a shortage of things to talk about. My main change has been to make it less scientific in nature, shifting it from being less physics-oriented and more about enjoying the universe.

"We cover topics essential to astronomy, like wavelengths and stellar density, but approach them more on a conceptual level. If I use an equation, I don’t expect students to manipulate the equation itself, but I want them to understand the concept of the equation."

Although the class is running for the 10th year, a new and exciting addition in 2003 has been access to the newly opened Mabee Observatory in Krehbiel Science Center and the observatory’s 16-inch telescope.

"Before this year, the biggest telescope we had at Bethel was 6 inches," Tuttle says, although in 2002 he was able to borrow an 8-inch one from the North Central Kansas Astronomical Society.

Doubling the diameter of the telescope quadruples its light-gathering power.

"A telescope is really just a light bucket. The bigger the bucket, the more light you gather," Tuttle says.

Tuttle reports that it will take a significant period of time to completely install the telescope. "The big observatories spend years installing and fine-tuning their telescopes," he says. Nonetheless, his 2003 astronomy students have enjoyed being able to observe the heavens with it.

Sara Hobbs, a Newton freshman who plans to major in chemistry, has been looking through a telescope for years with her family. "[My sister] Elizabeth got interested in astronomy when we were in middle school, and my dad bought a telescope," she says. However, Sara has been amazed at how much difference there is between the 16-inch and her family’s 8-inch reflector. "It’s been a lot of fun," she says.

His main goal with the class, Tuttle says, is to instill a sense of awe, a feeling of "Man, this universe is incredible-I had no idea what was out there."

Says Trollinger, "I find myself now, when I walk outside, looking up at the sky and trying to find the constellations. It gives me a new perspective on our place in the universe."

Bethel College’s Mabee Observatory, which opened last fall, has the latest model GPS (Global Positioning System) LX200, Equatorial Mount, Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope from Meade Corporation.

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