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Professor Hopes to Focus More Eyes on the Nighttime Sky

Asst. Professor Kristen Thompson leads students in a study of the sun during daylight hours.
Asst. Professor Kristen Thompson leads students in a study of the sun during daylight hours.

Assistant Professor of Physics Kristen Thompson has received a $5,000 Space Grant Faculty Award to fund educational astronomy community engagement programs at Davidson College and throughout North Mecklenburg and South Iredell counties.

The grant, bestowed by NASA and the NC Space Grant Consortium, will fund initiatives by Thompson and Davidson students to bring astronomy programs to local schools and youth organizations, host on-campus public star parties and present a day-long Davidson Space Day consisting of hands-on activities, a public lecture and stargazing.

Although Davidson's physics department is already engaged in informal education and outreach, this grant will allow for an expansion of its efforts and broaden their reach. 

"The grant will fund programs and initiatives that promote STEM education throughout our local communities," Thompson explained.

She plans to enlist the help of the college's Society of Physics Students and Women in Physics student groups.

"There is currently a disproportionate number of minorities and women in STEM fields," she noted. "As such, members of these underrepresented student groups often do not see themselves as STEM majors. Hopefully, with the help of our two physics student organizations, we can begin to change that."

Thompson said that the new public educational efforts will acknowledge the genuine curiosity that most people feel about astronomy.

"People are naturally curious about our place in the universe," she said. "A lot of people are interested in looking at the stars at night, but not everyone has the opportunity. As cities are expanding their borders, many youth don't get to experience the night sky," she said.

In Charlotte, for example, the lights of the city make it virtually impossible to see stars in the night sky. 

Thompson plans to use the grant funding to develop an outreach program that excites students and their families from the Charlotte area and provides them the opportunity to experience the night sky from the more rural areas around Davidson.

Thompson grew up in rural Ohio, and was frequently able to see the stars, the Milky Way and different constellations.

"Growing up there allowed me to take it all in, and so I grew up interested in astronomy," she said.