Albion Students Sample the NASA Wares

Astronomy class focuses on lunar and meteorite slides loaned by the space agency

April 8, 2015

matt-kribs-330Most college students--and alumni for that matter—can point to a class or classroom moment outside of their major that resonated and made an impact on them. It's probably also safe to assume that in a smaller, liberal arts setting, the opportunities for such experiences are greater.

And sometimes those experiences involve a "double impact" of sorts. In Nicolle Zellner's Planetary Astronomy class, open to all majors, students are looking under the microscope at a set of lunar and meteorite samples the physics professor recently received on a two-week loan from NASA.

"I find this very accessible," said Matt Kribs (right), a first-year honors and Ford Institute student from Mason, Michigan, who plans to major in music (violin) performance. "There are art majors, music majors, even physics majors [in the class]. It appeals to a wide variety of interests because it applies to our solar system. It's not every day you get to look at samples from the moon, from the Apollo spacecraft."

According to Zellner, the lunar samples come from a variety of Apollo missions, while the meteorite samples feature stony, iron and even martian compositions.

"With this lesson, I gave students the opportunity to look at extraterrestrial materials and to see how they are different in composition, depending on their collection area and material," Zellner said. "By looking at the materials from different regions of the Moon, for example, they can compare the samples to what we learned about the Moon's formation in class."

Planetary Astronomy—Physics 205—satisfies the Scientific Analysis mode of inquiry, a graduation requirement for all Albion students. Thirty students are in the class for lectures, and they divide into two groups of 15 for the lab portion.

"The goal of the class is to expose students to the beauty, and sometimes mystery, of our Solar System and what we know, or don't know, about it," Zellner said. "A small liberal arts setting allows for experts to teach students directly, with actual samples, about some of the other planetary objects in our Solar System. And the small size of the class allows these students—from all different majors—to work together and bring different perspectives to the assignment."