Often, when good things happen we say that the stars have aligned. That may or may not literally be what’s happening in the sky at that moment, but whenever it does happen, CCV-St. Johnsbury students will get to see it. Literally.
“The planetarium is a digital planetarium so the computer software that projects the sky can project basically past, present, and future.” said Mark Breen. “I can put in pretty much any date, and I believe it goes a million years in either direction.”
The planetarium is Vermont’s only public planetarium and it’s located at the Fairbanks Museum, a stone’s throw away from the College’s St. Johnsbury academic center. Breen is somewhat of a state celebrity–the St. Johnsbury resident is a meteorologist for Eye On The Sky, the weather report broadcast by public radio stations in Vermont and New Hampshire, and he’s also the host of an astronomy radio show titled Eye On The Night Sky. Most importantly to the CCV community, Breen teaches astronomy at the College, and students in his class get access to the planetarium and access to his knowledge of celestial happenings.
The class isn’t new to CCV, and neither is Breen; he taught the course last semester and said he had a great time with it and his students were a wonderful bunch to work with. Breen noted that he found the spectrum of students he was teaching–from traditional college-aged students to people his own age whom he knew from the community–really enhanced the course material.
“It’s interesting to engage with people in that way because within the classroom they’re approaching the subject from either a school standpoint or from a curiosity standpoint,” Breen said.”They came to it from very different directions, which I thought really made for great conversations.”
The full-time weather man came to astronomy in a more unconventional way than you might think. Sitting outside the recording booth at the Fairbanks Museum he explains that his interest and knowledge in the field come from working at the planetarium. Back in 1982 when he started at the museum as a meteorologist for Vermont Public Radio’s new Eye On The Sky weather forecast program, he was informed that part of the job required him to deliver a public planetarium program. What followed was the beginning of an ongoing program of celestial self-education.“Literally, I knew not much more than where the Big Dipper was in the sky, and I’m not sure I even knew that much,” he said.
This is hard to fathom coming from the familiar voice on the radio that tells us what planets and stars will be rising in what area of the sky during our evening commute. Nonetheless, the affable Breen said he had a deep interest in the subject, and that fueled his learning over the years, which in turn fuels his teaching.
“Because it was something I taught myself and that I was fascinated by, I had great motivation–I love sharing that journey with my students,” he said. “And they take me on some journeys, too, which is great, because then I look at it from a different angle, too.”
Although this is only his second semester teaching at CCV, it’s not his first go-around leading college students on tours of the heavens. Breen said he got started teaching back in the 1990s when an astronomy professor at Lyndon State College–his alma mater–asked him to take over an astronomy class. The professor had used the planetarium for his class and before heading off on sabbatical he asked Breen if he’d take over. Shortly thereafter the professor retired and Breen had himself a regular gig teaching at Lyndon. Now, his class is offered by CCV, and it’s an ever-evolving course.
The stars and the galaxy and the universe are constantly changing, as well. New data are being received here on earth from space ships and satellites on various missions throughout space–new images from Pluto were just sent back to scientists last month, the Kepler spacecraft is investigating earth-like planets orbiting other stars, and the Hubble Telescope continues to capture high-resolution images scientists use to learn about the universe. Breen explores all of this with his students, but, he said, he also delves into an area not typically covered in astronomy textbooks: the constellations.
“I like to sprinkle through the semester talks about the constellations, and that’s not generally something that’s taught in textbooks,” Breen said. “But I find that if we’re going to be talking about this black hole or that nebula, it’s helpful to be able to walk outside and say, ‘oh, that’s that area where that black hole is’.”
Breen said much of the deep space information in astronomy can be hard for humans to grasp because it’s not anything we have a direct connection to. This can make it difficult for students to find the important takeaway.
“I have a problem with that,” Breen said. “I like to make sure there’s some connection. You can show lots of pretty pictures of what the Hubble Space Telescope has seen, but I think it’s much more amazing to say ‘not only does this distant galaxy have a black hole in the center of it, but it’s actually in this area next to Orion.’ Then there’s a connection, it’s not just this thing that’s out there.”
It’s an approachable method of explaining astronomy and one that works for Breen outside of the classroom as well. His Eye On The Night Sky segment regularly explores complex cosmic happenings in a relatable manner by connecting the information to familiar constellations like the Big Dipper. And that’s what’s in the forecast for CCV-St. Johnsbury this coming semester: an introduction to the stars that will be informative and understandable.
But what about Vermont’s often cloudy winter skies? While he’s a pretty amazing weather man, he’s not good enough to actually manufacture the cloudless star-gazing skies. Or can he?
“That’s the wonderful thing about the planetarium,” Breen says with a wry chuckle. “I can guarantee clear skies.”