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EAC students study astrophotography as part of class

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EAC students study astrophotography as part of class

By Jeanné Clark

THATCHER, AZ—Eastern Arizona College astronomy students are getting the chance to participate in an advanced, hands-on study of astrophotography as part of the lab section of their Introduction to Astronomy (AST103) class, thanks to the work of David Morris, EAC’s astronomy instructor and Science Division chair. Astrophotography, a specialized type of photography of astronomical objects such as the moon, sun, planets, stars, and deep sky objects, is a discipline that is not usually studied by undergraduate students.

“University students don’t even get to do this,” says Morris. “Especially not freshmen and sophomores—the professors just don’t take the time! I’m so happy that I can give students this experience, even at a community college.”

Morris has been teaching astronomy and geology at EAC since the fall of 2001. He has a Master of Science from San Francisco State University, a Bachelor of Science from the University of California at Davis, and an Associate of Arts degree from Santa Rosa Junior College in California. While a student at Santa Rosa, Morris became a teaching assistant and planetarium lecturer while still a freshman. Just prior to moving to Arizona to take the position at Eastern, Morris worked for several Naval Air Stations around the country.

“I love the Gila Valley because I can combine my career with the things I love to do—go into the outdoors and just look at the stars and rocks. This valley is the perfect place for both of those,” Morris says.

Morris continues, “students don’t usually think of astronomy when they need to take a lab science, but this class counts as four credits of a general education lab science—and there’s no prerequisite.”

“Although this class is entry level, it is not basic,” he says. “The lab for this class is intense and hands-on. Even though it’s only two weekends out of the semester, we spend all night working straight through. There’s never any downtime when we’re out in the field.”

For the first few nights of the lab class, students stay in the classroom. “They learn just about every constellation and telescopic object in the night sky—and memorize them all, so that before we ever go into the field, they know the night sky better than they know the roads in Thatcher,” laughs Morris.

After testing their knowledge of these stellar objects, Morris teaches his students how to use the equipment. “All this is leading up to the photography part of the lab,” he explains. “The students form groups of three and decide which object they want to photograph. There’s a huge array to choose from—and I never let them go for the easy things. Since it takes such a huge amount of time to capture each image, they need to be sure of what they’re doing and how they want their photo to look.”

Once the groups have chosen a subject that is both interesting and challenging, they can begin the process of photographing it.

Assisting Morris with the labs is astronomy class docent Kelsey Black, one of Morris’s former students. Black currently works as a local and regional AM and FM radio engineer in addition to volunteering with Morris. “Kelsey has been volunteering for four years,” explains Morris. “It wouldn’t be possible for me to do this without him.”

“My job is to help them operate the equipment,” says Black. “It’s a mess—there’s an eleven-inch telescope, two huge battery packs, and tons of cabling—all of which is connected to the computer. The camera is mounted to the front of the telescope, rather than on the eyepiece like you’d expect.”

After finding and focusing on the object in question, the students can then take the picture. With Black’s help in processing and editing, the group then has a digital image.

“To the untrained eye, these student pictures look as good as anything you’d see coming from NASA,” says Morris. “Though they’re not quite that caliber, I strongly believe that these images and this technology is an amazing opportunity for our students, as well as a great aid to the learning process. And who knows—maybe one of these students will discover a new astronomical object someday while taking photographs.”

For more information about astrophotography or the Introduction to Astronomy class, contact David Morris at EAC’s Science Division at (928) 428-8259.