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magazine home > archives > spring 2002 > features

One University of Memphis professor is using outer space to spark inner curiosity within the minds of tomorrow’s scientists.

Star Power
by Amy Clarkson

Dr. Joan Schmelz

Dr. Joan Schmelz

A group of Memphis-area students recently took a cosmic road trip, exploring the sun’s 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 science in

“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 aren’t 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.

“There’s nothing like first-hand experience in the classroom to understand what these kids need and how this program should work,” she says. “I’m 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 can’t 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 star’s 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,” Schmelz says.

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 sun’s atmosphere — the corona — the subject of her research for NASA.

Schmelz slideshow
After 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, she’s 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 won’t 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 more.

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 what’s 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 they’ll make for college.

“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 science.

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 day’s presentation will steer at least a few of them into the realm of science.

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