Star Power

Professors hope Star Parties will spark community interest in science

While most people are familiar with the planets and stars in our solar system, few have seen a star close up. Katrin Schenk, a Randolph physics professor, is trying to change that with monthly Star Parties at Randolph’s Winfree Observatory. “When you look through a telescope, it’s real,” she said. “It sort of hits you in this visceral way.”

Schenk, along with Peter Sheldon, a physics professor, and Tatiana Gilstrap, an environmental sciences professor, began opening the College’s Observatory in the fall for monthly star viewings. A Lynchburg astronomy club is also participating. The open houses allow Randolph’s campus and the Lynchburg community to view stars and planets through the Observatory’s 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector telescope. “The intent is to get people excited about astronomy and to reconnect people with science,” said Schenk, who teaches astronomy and physics courses at Randolph.

Named for Major C. V. Winfree, an early benefactor who provided the College with its first telescope, the red brick Observatory—with its retractable dome—was built in 1906 and enlarged in 1923. In recent years, student and faculty research has limited the time the Observatory has been available to the public.

“Astronomy, in particular, is a good gateway science,” said Colton Wood ’14, who plans to major in physics and volunteers at the Star Parties. He is also working with Randolph’s physics professors to upgrade the Observatory’s technology. “Once people see through a telescope the beauty of our universe, they become intrigued and curious and want to learn more.”

The Star Parties have drawn steady groups of star gazers of all ages, and Randolph’s professors hope the open houses will spark that interest in science. Schenk still finds herself amazed by the simple beauty of picking out favorite stars in the night sky.

“Albireo is my favorite star and a favorite of most star observers,” Schenk said. “If you look at it from down here, it’s dim. But through a telescope, it’s actually a double star. It’s bright blue-green and bright golden—it’s unbelievable.”