A group of Memphis-area students recently took a cosmic road
trip, exploring the suns fiery atmosphere, newborn stars,
ancient white dwarfs and mysterious black holes.
The leader of this interstellar expedition was University
of Memphis professor Joan Schmelz, a NASA researcher whose
goal is to spark an interest in astronomy in particular and
Too many students know more about astrology than they
do about astronomy, Dr. Schmelz says. Scientists,
teachers and parents need to join together to change that.
Schmelz is doing her part to recruit the next generation
of scientists through a NASA-sponsored program, Breaking
the Secrets of Starlight, which is aimed at elementary
and middle school students.
The students in Manning Hall Auditorium on The U of M campus
arent merely bystanders on their universal road trip
Schmelz quietly leads them on a fact-finding expedition
and invites them to become junior astronomers for the day.
Their mission: to discover the composition of stars.
What do astronomers study? she asks the crowd
of about 80 eighth-graders.
From all corners of the auditorium, Schmelz gets answers:
stars, planets, comets, galaxies. She nods each time, encouraging
more students to speak out.
A professor of astrophysics, Schmelz designed the program
in the spring of 2001 with the intention of exposing children
to the wonders of the universe. She packed up her slideshow,
work-sheets, and demonstrations and went on a road trip of
her own to 14 area schools.
Theres nothing like first-hand experience in
the classroom to understand what these kids need and how this
program should work, she says. Im grateful
to all the teachers who invited me to visit their schools
and to all the students who participated.
In an effort to reach a greater number of students, Schmelz
moved the program to the University last fall. She also began
teaching the program to science teachers in the Memphis City
Schools. She hopes that decoding starlight will
eventually become a regular activity in fifth-grade classrooms.
We cant bring a star to the lab to study it,
she tells her audience, but we can analyze the one thing
that the star sends us its light.
Schmelz explains to the eighth-graders that astronomers use
a device called a spectrometer to break starlight into its
component colors like a raindrop breaks up sunlight
into a rainbow. She says that the starlight can tell something
about the star, but the message appears to be in code.
In order to understand the message, a code breaker
for starlight must be built.
The students watch as four different gases (neon, mercury,
krypton and hydrogen) are heated until they glow.
The young students observe the light with diffraction gratings,
which, like a spectrometer, separate the light into its component
colors. They draw the patterns they see on a worksheet and
compare the drawings with the actual starlight.
The students then answer two questions: Which pattern
most closely resembles the stars spectrum? and
From the data you have compiled, what are stars made
of? The answer to both questions is hydrogen. And
stars are just that gigantic balls of hydrogen,
Without realizing it, these students just received a crash
course in astrophysics from a NASA researcher.
Schmelz also tells them about her quest to unravel one of
the longest-standing mysteries in astronomy. Flashing a vibrant
photo of red and orange, she shows the students an X-ray image
of the suns atmosphere the corona the
subject of her research for NASA.
a slideshow, Schmelz leads a question and answer session
with the students.
At the surface, the sun is about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit,
she says, but the corona is much, much hotter
about 1 million degrees, and no one can explain why.
Searching for answers to the longest-standing
astronomical mystery is one reason Schmelz is at the University.
After earning her Ph.D. in astronomy from Penn State, she
worked at NASA, where she helped operate the Solar Maximum
Mission satellite. Now, shes conducting research and
teaching astronomy classes at The U of M.
After the brief workshop, students have begun to understand
just a bit about astronomy and physics and the everyday importance
of science in their own lives. Schmelz encourages them to
think about taking more science classes.
Accompanied by their teachers, the students spend about an
hour with Schmelz. Her program is flexible enough to accommodate
the attention spans and needs of the students.
The length depends on them and the questions they ask,
she says. Usually, I get a lot of questions, but occasionally
they wont ask any. I tailored the program so I can make
it as long or as short as they want.
The students have questions about the diffraction grating,
the stars and the planets. Most of them know about white dwarfs
and black holes.
They also know the order of the planets and can recite them
for Schmelz. But they are intrigued by her offer to show them
Schmelz leads them further on the journey through the galaxy
and beyond. She shows them pictures of newborn stars and dying
stars. She explains the science behind black holes and whats
next in space exploration.
The students are interested, which is exactly Schmelz
aim in developing her program. She hopes their interest carries
into their schoolwork and the choices theyll make for
We need to cultivate the next generation of scientists,
she says, and this is just one way to do that.
At the end of the hour, the students interest in science
seems to mount; as she sends them back to their schools, she
encourages them to continue to think about the mysteries in
Only a handful of students go on to study astrophysics at
the university level. But the choices that lead them to careers
are made early, and she hopes the days presentation
will steer at least a few of them into the realm of science.