Few subjects captivate minds — young and old — quite like astronomy.
Short of boarding a space shuttle, a planetarium offers the best possible environment to satisfy one’s celestial curiosity, and better still, earn credits to fulfill a science requirement at Indiana University Northwest.
On Saturdays while classes are in session, Adjunct Professor Gregg Williams’ astronomy students file into the Merrillville Community Planetarium, where Williams also happens to be the director, and has been for the past 35 years.
The planetarium, housed inside Clifford Pierce Middle School in Merrillville, greets visitors with a model space shuttle suspended from the ceiling and murals of stars and planets adorning the walls. When exiting the 64-seat planetarium, visitors even exit into a mini gift shop.
Having created at least half of the 50-plus shows that the planetarium shows to the entire region’s K-12 audiences, Williams seems an obvious choice for college-level instruction as well.
Williams teaches The Solar System (A100), Stars and Galaxies (A105), and just this past summer, he added Charting the Night Sky (A109), rounding out a full three semesters of consecutive courses.
The new course examines what Williams calls “naked-eye astronomy,” or what astronomy was like for the Earth-bound before the advent of technology and telescopes.
Speaking of “naked-eye astronomy,” Williams, his students, and anyone with a passing interest will have an opportunity to learn about astronomy when a total eclipse of the sun will be visible across the continental U.S. on August 21, coinciding with the first day of classes at IU Northwest.
Solar eclipses occur during the new moon, when the moon is directly between the Earth and sun, causing the disk of the moon to partially or totally cover the disk of the sun. In Gary, the eclipse begins at 11:54 a.m., achieves its maximum view at 1:20 p.m. and ends at 2:43 p.m.
Williams said that eclipses provide a chance for modern people to re-connect with their ancient ancestors’ awe of the sky.
“Besides checking the weather, most people give only a passing glance to the sky,” Williams said. “By contrast, ancient people felt a connection to the heavens since they depended on the sun and stars to tell time and mark their calendars. Many people who observe a total eclipse of the sun report experiencing a sense of awe bordering on the spiritual. This response is probably very similar to the emotions our ancient ancestors felt as they saw the sun, upon which our planet depends for light and heat, temporarily blotted from view.”
This observation reflects the type of discussions students will experience in Williams’ newest course, as well as the others, which he says are “perfect for non-science majors.” They are not mathematical, as some might assume, but rather, descriptive.
“The last time I had any kind of astronomy was probably in middle school which was many moons ago,” laughs Denise Maragos, a 48-year-old from Schererville who is majoring in history.
“Having the class at a planetarium is awesome,” she said, “because the shows really drive home the concepts from the unit we are working on. I have learned a lot and it has reignited my curiosity of the universe.”
Anthony Taylor, 58, of Merrillville admitted that science was never his strong suit, so when he learned that astronomy would satisfy his major’s science requirement, he was happy to register.
“I’ve learned so much from the course and have a greater appreciation every time I look into the night sky,” said Taylor, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in general studies.
Erika Rose is a media communications specialist for Indiana University Northwest. Kevin Fryling of IU Communications contributed to this article.