A group of people gather around a table to learn about classroom events.
Chris Sidell, an astronomy materials developer, explains his project about utilizing smartphones to advance astronomy learning in the classroom to the event’s attendees.

Scientists from across Nebraska came to educate the general public on astronomical eclipses through their research in the field with a series of demonstrations, conversations and hands-on activities March 26 at “Sunday with a Scientist,” an initiative the University of Nebraska-Lincoln conducts monthly.

“Sunday with a Scientist” is a monthly event held at Morrill Hall on UNL’s campus that allows scientists to come and share their research and educate people. This month’s topic “Simulating and Understanding Eclipses,” featured an array of walk-up booths to learn more about eclipses through a series of scientists’ research. 

Booths ranged from understanding eclipses through our phones, looking at eclipses throughout time, understanding angular physics of eclipses and a NASA booth.

Kevin Lee, research associate professor in both the departments of Physics and Astronomy, organized the event.

Lee said the inspiration for focusing Sunday’s event around eclipses was because of two upcoming solar eclipses with partial visibility in Nebraska. 

On Oct. 14, 2023, an annular solar eclipse will occur, meaning the moon passes between the Earth and the sun at or near its furthest point from the Earth, resulting in a ring of the sun around the moon. This annular eclipse will best be seen from its path of totality from Oregon to Texas, with partial visibility in Nebraska.

Additionally, on April 8, 2023, a total solar eclipse will occur, meaning the moon is between the Earth and sun at its closest point to the Earth, completely blocking the face of the sun. This path of totality can be seen from Maine down to Texas, again, with partial visibility in Nebraska.

Lee said Sunday’s event is important because it educates the general public on important scientific issues and creates a science-literate society. Lee said understanding issues such as nuclear power, climate change, and NASA’s endeavors are important because budgets need to be approved, and bills need to be passed regarding these topics.

“Having a populace that’s familiar with these ideas benefits us and benefits everybody because then they make wise decisions when they vote,” Lee said.

One of the booth’s projects, conducted by Sukina Al-Hamedi, a junior biochemistry major at UNL, focused on developing online sorting tasks relating to astronomy and astrobiology concepts. A QR code was provided to direct people to a series of online sorting tasks on one’s phone, teaching one about eclipses.

Al-Hamedi said the goal is to make these concepts easy for educators to teach in the classroom by implementing them on smartphones in the new digital learning age.

Al-Hamedi said the act of using online sorting tasks through your phone is scientifically proven to work by using active recall, which entails practicing questions and getting feedback on them if you are incorrect, as well as being provided with background context.

“Because the times are changing and technology is being incorporated in the classrooms, we need to find ways to make education still be efficient with those new incorporations,” Al-Hemedi said. 

A booth just across the way from Al-Hamedi’s had a similar focus. 

Chris Siedell, an astronomy materials developer, also sought to implement smartphones into the classroom through his project. Siedell said he hopes to educate classrooms on astronomy through a series of educational simulations. 

Just like Al-Hamedi, Siedell had several QR codes displayed that would direct one to a simulation teaching you more about astronomical concepts, such as observational geometry, which is the setting and rising of stars, stellar evolution, how stars evolve, and eclipses, showing the geometry of planets in the solar system during an eclipse and how that affects what, where and when people can see them in the sky.

“As technologies advance, we’ve always tried to see how we can use it to advance astronomy education,” Siedell said. “A lot of instructors fight it, and they don’t like smartphones being used in the classroom, and maybe they have a point. They are distracting, but we’re trying to see if we can make it work.”

Also making an appearance at the event was NASA.

NASA had a booth giving away free space and NASA-themed goodies such as stickers, cinch sacks, stress balls, and more. Also present at the table, four teachers who are NASA Nebraska space ambassadors. 

Pam Petersen, one of the NASA ambassadors and teacher at York Middle School, explained that each state receives money from the government for NASA funding. NASA Nebraska gets a space grant that goes toward higher education, such as research money for grad students.

The same space grant also allows teachers across Nebraska to become ambassadors and conduct teacher training across the state. This provides opportunities to host events such as space camp in Nebraska and also receive funding for outreach programs.

Tammy Blobaum, a NASA ambassador and teacher at Nebraska City High School, said one of the cool things about the NASA ambassador program is that it allows middle and high school teachers like themselves to teach about space in all regions of Nebraska such as Scottsbluff, Omaha, Nebraska City, and Walt Hill.

“I think it’s really cool that we get to bring our training to teachers so that they can inspire the next generation of kids,” Blobaum said. “Working with teachers and kids is fun, but promoting space is probably one of our biggest passions.”

Judy Little, another NASA ambassador and teacher at Burke High School in Omaha, said Sunday’s event was so important because as the exploration of space goes further, the opportunities will be varied. It will no longer be just a space for engineers or astrophysicists, but there will be many other options for people to get involved in.

Building off of Little’s statement, Mike Edmundson, the fourth NASA ambassador and teacher at  Millard South High School, said that the future of space in the next ten years is going to look a lot different than it does today. 

He said that while attending the International Space Station Convention in Washington D.C last summer, the speakers mentioned having space baristas because they’re going to want coffee on the moon. Additionally, he said an astronaut had only trained for a week before being sent into space.

“Space is going to become normal for everyone. It’s not just going to be for the professional astronauts,” Edmundson said. “The goal with some of these new programs is, how do we get people who just need to go up and do a quick job to come back down?”

Petersen said that children in today’s age are living in a time where people are going back to space and that it’s new and exciting. She said they get to experience firsthand a new era of space exploration that is more accessible than ever.

“We want to increase the diversity and the knowledge and the excitement for it so that we continue to the moon and beyond,” Little said.