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Instructors set up telescope

Seeing Stars

‘Star Parties’ give students a closer look at our celestial neighbors

As sunset rapidly approaches on a Friday evening in early April, Yakima Valley College faculty members Zach Schierl and Suki Smaglik are getting ready for a party in front of Glenn Anthon Hall.

At this party, the centerpieces are the college’s two 12-inch reflecting telescopes, which will give students in astronomy classes and the STEM Club an opportunity to get a closer look at the moon, stars, galaxies and other celestial bodies.

The April “star party” was the first of two stargazing events hosted by Schierl and Smaglik during spring quarter, with a second taking place on the Grandview Campus in May.

“To me, hosting star parties is an important part of astronomy because it is a very visual science,” said Schierl, who developed and led astronomy and dark sky stewardship programs across the western U.S. as an education specialist and park ranger for the National Park Service before joining YVC’s faculty.

“We can’t actually travel or visit most of the places that we study, so being able to see the moon or a planet that you’ve learned about in class with your own eyes through a telescope makes the experience of learning astronomy much more tangible,” he said.

People view stars through telescopes
YVC students and family members get a close look at the moon, stars and other celestial objects during an April "Star Party."

As the last minutes of twilight tick away, students start arriving, several accompanied by family members. Schierl kicks off the festivities with a quick primer on how to use the telescopes since for many, it’s their first hands-on opportunity to gaze through a telescope.

Then, with twilight officially at an end, it’s time for the party to get under way. Schierl introduces attendees to some stargazing essentials, pointing out prominent constellations such as Orion and the Big Dipper and the stars that comprise them. And, of course, the telescopes give many the closest view they’ve ever had of the moon.

“Being able to see the moon or a planet that you’ve learned about in class with your own eyes through a telescope makes the experience of learning astronomy much more tangible.” — Instructor Zach Schierl

Instructor and student set up telescope
Instructor Zack Schierl shows a student how to use one of the college's 12-inch reflecting telescopes.

YVC started hosting quarterly star parties just before the onset of COVID, but the pandemic forced a switch to virtual telescope viewing sessions on Zoom.

“The social aspect of getting everyone together to look at the night sky is really powerful,” Schierl said. “Pre-COVID, I frequently had students tell me that they signed up for the class because they heard about the telescope viewing nights. That element of community is something that we’ve really been missing during 2+ years of online learning, so it has been really exciting to be able to hold these events again and get folks excited about astronomy.”

In the future, Schierl and Smaglik hope to host additional star parties that will be open to both the YVC community and the general public.

To learn more about stargazing and light pollution, watch Schierl’s talk “Who’s Afraid of the … Light?: A Natural History of Darkness,” presented earlier this year as part of the YVC and Cowiche Canyon Conservancy’s Winter Talk Series. Find out more about STEM offerings at YVC online.