Astronomy At Bay

At 6’6”, with a basso-profundo voice, booming laugh and ever-present bow tie, science faculty member David Friedlander-Holm is hard to miss in the hallways of Bay. Beyond his height and sartorial choices, Mr. Friedlander-Holm is known for his love of the cosmos. Not only does he share interesting astronomy facts with the school community during Morning Meeting, he also shares his passion for discovery with the students in his physics and astrophysics courses. Last week we talked with David a bit about “Astro” at Bay.

Let’s start with a basic question: why teach astronomy/astrophysics to high school students?

I always answer this question with a story. When I was studying astronomy in college, one of the first things my professor did was have us go outside and watch the sunset–not through a telescope but just by looking. I saw all 5 planets [that were] visible to the naked eye. In that moment, I felt both my smallness and my connectedness with everything. That feeling is uniquely accessible through the study of astronomy. Even when I take students up to the observatory, we spend time lying on our backs on the driveway to look at the dark sky. The immensity is so physical when you experience the sky that way. It’s really the thing that hooks the students into astronomy. It hooked me.

Bay is extremely fortunate to have exclusive school use of Tuolumne Skies Observatory, a private observatory in the Sierra Foothills. What does it mean for Bay students to have regular access to an observatory?

It’s amazing. Bay students can have more direct experience with an observatory telescope than I did as a physics/astronomy major in college! The Keck Observatory [on Mauna Kea], which has the world’s largest telescopes, is using equipment to run those telescopes that are only one step above what Bay students are using. When I went to UC Berkeley last month to observe what equipment they were using at Keck, I was shocked to see how similar it is to our equipment. We are incredibly, incredibly lucky to be able to work with the 20” Ritchey-Chretien telescope at Tuolumne Observatory. We have our class computers hooked up to it and can get data at any time we like.

Having this constant access means we’re doing real science. Often in a science classroom, the teacher is manipulating variables to show a principle at work. Having access to the telescope means students are able to do bench science [i.e. real research]. Students, of course, have to learn what they are looking at and looking for. Then they practice the skills of observation, confirmation, perseverance (you have to look and look and look), and problem-solving. There is so much to take into account when using a telescope to collect data: when to take data based on weather conditions and the moon’s phases, how to use the equipment, how to fix the equipment, and, of course, the human factor.  What’s so great is that I am working WITH the students. When there is a problem with the equipment, together we figure out how to solve it. I don’t have all the answers. And these are real-world, not created or simulated, problems.

What are your students working on?

Learning to use this telescope and the computers /software that are tracking the data; learning to do astrophotography. There are some students who are building a weather station at the observatory so we can quickly determine when it starts raining so we can shut the domes to protect the equipment from rain. Ultimately, we hope we can make discoveries. Right now we are looking for an exoplanet [a planet outside of our solar system]. We’ll start by identifying a variable star since the techniques required to analyze variable stars is similar to approaches to identifying exoplanets.  Then we’ll confirm a known exoplanet before starting to look for an exoplanet that is as yet undiscovered.

What’s next for astro at Bay?

Besides discovering an exoplanet?!?! Well, on my wish list is a spectrometer. Teaching students spectroscopy will allow them to be able to classify stars by measuring gas clouds and light curves. They’ll learn what stars are made of! We’ll also be able to determine the velocity of objects which can help us find extra-galactic distances and which will help build our students’ understanding of the universe as a whole system.

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