As dusk begins to fall on the Valley on a Monday evening, a stream of cars makes its way north on Highway 41 toward a place far from the city’s glowing lights, to see the night sky as nature intended it – in darkness.
The San Joaquin Experimental Range, a 4,462-acre plot of land owned by Fresno State and administered by the agriculture department, is typically used as a grazing land for cattle and other livestock – hence its name – and where students and faculty conduct agriculture research. Six nights a semester, however, it serves a different purpose for the students of the Introductory Astronomy (Physical Science 21) class at Fresno State.
“It gives our students an opportunity to see the sky where it’s dark, as opposed to the city where you might see 50 stars,” said Steven White, PSCI21 instructor and director of the Downing Planetarium. “Up there, you see a couple thousand.”
With lab manuals in hand and equipped with star maps and flashlights (covered by red cellophane, as to not ruin one’s night vision), these amateur astronomers attempt to locate constellations, bright stars and learn how to operate a telescope.
“The range lab is to give students experience looking at the real sky with their own eyes, and that’s what science is all about,” said Frederick Ringwald, a PSCI21 professor and director of the Fresno State Observatory. “Sadly, science is often badly taught as something abstract you get out of a book, and that’s not really true. Science is what you experience in the real world.”
The range, which is about a 30-minute drive from campus, is fully equipped with plenty of parking, bathrooms and storage space for the telescopes – 8-inch Newtonian reflectors, to be precise.
“It’s a very nice facility. I wish every university had one,” Ringwald said. “Often, universities just take their students up to the roof of a building on campus, where they never really see much anyway.”
The facility and equipment allow students to get hands-on experience with real scientific instruments and techniques, which is an important part to any science class, Ringwald said.
“Science is fundamentally something you do with your hands,” he said, “and a nice thing about astronomy is we can look at the real universe with our own eyes, really without much difficulty if we’re away from city lights.”
The telescopes used at the range are unlike what most people expect, he said, because they use mirrors to reflect and focus the light, as opposed to other telescopes that use lenses to refract it. As a result, the telescopes are simpler, lighter and much less expensive – about $500 instead of $10,000.
Each PSCI21 lab class (some on Mondays, some on Tuesdays) makes two or three trips to the range a semester, depending on the weather, Ringwald said. The first lab is scheduled on a night with a full moon, giving students something easy at which to point the telescope.
“The moon is a wonderful thing to look at anyway,” Ringwald said. “It’s a close-up of an alien world, and people often gasp at the craters and all the other detail – the mountains and craters they can see on the moon.”
The following lab is scheduled for a night with no moon, making the sky dark enough to see even the faintest stars with the unaided eye, and even galaxies – especially our own.
“It does give me a feeling that we have accomplished something because most students have never seen the Milky Way,” Ringwald said. “Most students who take PSCI21 have spent all their lives in cities and have never seen the Milky Way. They’ve never seen a really dark sky. They’ve never seen a meteor, and have never really made an effort to do so. So this is their first exposure, and it’s memorable as a result of that.”
Though some students may have been to the mountains at some point in their lives, White said that they often do not take the time to actually observe and enjoy the opportunity it presents.
“Maybe they’ve been out when they’ve been over the Sierras or something out camping, but most people have never had the chance to have the dark sky and ‘my job is to study it.’ So there’s something new,” he said. “And actually, when there’s so many stars, it kind of can get hard to pick out the constellations, but then you really get to appreciate the beauty.”
Dillon Trelawny, a graduate student and PSCI21 lab instructor, makes every trip to the range to assist students through the lab exercise for the night. He said his favorite part of the lab is to give students the opportunity of “looking through the telescopes and actually seeing a nebula or galaxy that’s thousands of light-years away.”
For Trelawny, the range also gives students a chance to experience something that they may otherwise not be able to do if they were not in an astronomy class.
“I think that astronomy is more of an interest in people, but they just don’t have the means to go and look at it first hand,” he said. “So this provides a good way to do that.”
White has been teaching the course for 20 years, during which time he has made dozens of trips to the range, before relinquishing most of the on-site lessons to the lab instructors.
“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to teach here and take the kids up there. For a long time – for the first seven years – I was going up there every single trip,” White said.
“Most the time when I would go up there, I wouldn’t get back till midnight, and I’d be back in class teaching at 8 a.m. the next morning.”
The class was designed with non-science majors in mind, as it is a general education introductory course, but that does not mean that it should not teach them how science really works, Ringwald said.
“If we’re going to have a general education course on science, it needs to be designed from the beginning with the idea in mind that students are not going to be professional scientists,” he said. “They do live in a society where science is important though, so it’s important to give them a realistic sample of what science is about.
“Science is all about actually checking things with your own eyes. Science is fundamentally about testing ideas by experiment. It isn’t all theory. So actually seeing the sky with your own eye, I think is an indispensable component of this course.”