Birmingham News (AL)


Volume 119,

November 16, 2006


UM professor sets his sights on the stars He'll try to raise funds for astronomical observatory

Author: NANCY WILSTACH News staff writer

Section: NEWS

Page: 1-A


On a clear night, if a University of Montevallo professor has his way, amateur astronomers in Shelby County will be able to just about see forever.


Michael Sterner, associate professor of mathematics, has won the UM Board of Trustees' endorsement for a spring semester sabbatical to put together money for an astronomical observatory at the university.


Sterner said he will be looking for funding sources and writing grant applications. His goal is to land about $100,000 to install a Fiberglas prefabricated observatory on the University Lake property off Shelby County 204.


The observatory will look ''like a big tin can with a dome on top,'' Sterner said. ''The top opens up and swivels, just like in the movies.''


Sterner, who is part of the Alabama Math and Science Teaching Initiative, said he envisions the observatory serving as a field-trip destination for high school students as well as a valuable teaching aide for community and college astronomy classes.


Astronomy, he said, can serve as an impetus for a high school student to choose to take other higher math courses. ''And in Alabama the levels of proficiency in math and science are about half the national average.''


Sterner and Michael Patton, a UM associate professor of philosophy, started the Montevallo Astronomy Club in 1999 and began teaching an honors astronomy course. The club now has 60 members, Sterner said.


''Each time we have taught the class, it was full,'' he said.


The popularity of the subject he learned to love in graduate school led Sterner to try to build an observatory at the college.


He is looking to smaller regional charitable and educational foundations for money, he said.


Patton is on sabbatical this semester, Sterner said, and took a grant-writing seminar to help with the observatory project.


If he and Patton can nail down the grants, Sterner said, he expects to put the observatory into use by late 2007 or early 2008.


The first step in setting up the observatory will be installation of a pier aligned on due north, Sterner said; that will serve as the telescope's base. The telescope will have a clock drive to counteract the effect of the earth's rotation.


From there it can get as fancy as the financing allows, he said. Computer monitors can be used to share with a class what the telescope is focused on. The images can be broadcast on the campus television station or transmitted to the campus Web site, like a Web cam in space.


Sterner explained the difference between an observatory and a planetarium, such as the one at Birmingham-Southern College.


''The planetarium is a solid dome with the constellations projected onto it. You can use a planetarium rain or shine, and it is an excellent teaching tool,'' he said.


''But there is nothing quite like putting your eye up there and seeing it for yourself.''















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Record Number: MERLIN_3699057