Sixth graders explore the night sky

CT 02-07 astronomy.jpg Sixth grade students participate in an astronomy expedition. (Jan. 14, 2020) Photo courtesy of Lauren Bien

By Nicole Webster
For The Cordova Times

Earlier this month, despite single-digit temperatures and brisk winds, sixth grade students at Mt. Eccles Elementary School embarked on two overnight winter adventures. The girls, on Jan. 14, and the boys, on Jan. 15, snowshoed up to Meals Reservoir, used tripods and long exposure photography to capture the stars, and camped overnight in the Prince William Sound Science Center office.

These trips, designed by sixth grade teacher Krysta Williams and supported by PWSSC’s Discovery Room program, were partially supported by a grant from the Teacher Innovator Institute.

PWSSC educators met the students and their teacher, Krysta Williams, directly after school, piling food, camping gear and snowshoes into large vans. Eyes on the white mountains, frozen delta and pink sky, students buzzed as the vans drove out the Copper River Highway.

Upon arrival at the campground, they post-holed through the snow, throwing snowballs at each other and making their way to the cook cabin for dinner.

Later, piling into the vans after nightfall, they warmed up on the drive to the Meals Reservoir trailhead. After a quick lesson in snowshoeing, the group began climbing the steep trail into the alpine basin.

Immediately, bright views of the stars were visible; the girls, awed, lay themselves out in the snow, halfway up the trail, to get a better look. Once the students reached the top of the trail, they pulled out their donated tripods and cameras. There, educators explained basic concepts of nighttime photography, including settings for aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and pointed out well known constellations.

Students spent about 45 minutes taking photos of nearby Mt. Eyak, Mt. Eccles, Heney Ridge and the stars draped behind the peaks. A few students even caught glimpses of the waning Quadrantids meteor shower. Frozen through, everyone then snowshoed (or slid, rolled, and laughed, in the case of some students), down the trail.

As it was too cold to spend the night at the campground, everyone camped out at the PWSSC office near the harbor. The next day, students were packed up and back at school just in time for breakfast. What a whirlwind winter adventure!

Reflecting on his experience a few days later, one sixth grade student had this to say: “This night hike has really inspired me to learn a lot more about astronomy. I even learned some new stuff that I’ve never learned about in space — like the seven sisters, that was like, so cool! … After that hike, I felt like astronomy just sparked my interest. It just feels like I was made to learn about space and all the planets and the stars!”

PWSSC’s Discovery Room is a supplemental science education partnership with Mt. Eccles Elementary in Cordova. Sixth grade students, as the oldest in the program, also get to study bioluminescence out in the sound, build Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), and spend two spring nights out on the Copper River Delta. PWSSC is excited to be expanding its place-based educational programming and working with great education partners that want to introduce students to the outdoors without them having to battle barriers of time, money or transportation.