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Georgia College's Project ASTRO inspires future scientists in Middle Georgia

In 1969, Beate Czogalla wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut.

She amazed her parents at age 5, staying up all night to watch mankind’s first steps on the moon. But it seemed her cosmic dreams would end there – for she didn’t have the 20/20 vision needed to be a military test pilot.

“I’ve been a closet space cadet since the first lunar landing. Being a little girl – that was unheard of,” said Czogalla, professor of theatre design. “To me, astronauts and scientists were superheroes and superstars. So, I found other ways to get involved.”

Now, she reaches the stars through teaching.

Czogalla is one of five Georgia College professors who teach astronomy in local schools free through Project ASTRO. The nationwide program began 24 years ago through the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP), pairing professors and amateur astronomers with elementary, middle and high school teachers. They give lessons on anything from stargazing and moon phases to planetary movement and black holes.

Dr. Donovan Domingue explains the earth's rotation to sixth graders at Putnam County Middle School.
Dr. Donovan Domingue explains the earth’s rotation to sixth graders at Putnam
County Middle School.

Dr. Donovan Domingue, professor of physics and astronomy, started the program at Georgia College in 2016. It’s the Southeast’s first and only center for Project ASTRO.

Domingue purchased science materials and teacher resources with funding from his Kaolin Endowed Chair position. His volunteers have taught in Baldwin, Bibb, Jasper, Jones, Putnam and Washington counties. They visit assigned classrooms four times a year, working with science, math and even writing teachers.

“We’re in a really unique and very rare position to be the center for Project ASTRO in the Southeast,” Czogalla said. “The important thing I can’t stress enough is about localizing it – making science relevant for people in Millegeville and the surrounding counties.”

There are no lectures with Project ASTRO. Professors keep learning active and fun. They might use Styrofoam balls, flashlights and yardsticks to measure planets to scale and show how the sun produces shadow. Or they might use clay to determine how many earths need to be stuck together to form a planet the size of Jupiter. 

Recently, Domingue did “kinesthetic astronomy” using movement in Ellen Gibson’s sixth grade science class at Putnam County Middle School. Students held east/west signs in outstretched hands and spun around as the earth – while also rotating as a group in a circle around a basketball for the sun. This demonstrated time of day, seasons of the year and motion of the earth. Students got dizzy and loved it.

“Astronomy gets a lot of people excited,” Domingue said. “Just having someone who can show up at your school with a functioning telescope and show students the sun or an eclipse – these are things schools don’t have.”

“I see over and over again the kids getting excited and indicating that they’ve learned something,” he said. “It’s important to make the connection that scientists are just real people like them, and they can do this too.”

This week, physics lecturer Dr. Laura Whitlock was at Putnam County Middle School teaching about meteorites, asteroids and comets. She used dry ice, water, ammonia, sand and syrup to make “dirty frozen ice balls” that melt like comets when they approach the sun.

“My day today filled me with joy,” Whitlock said. “A student came up to me and hugged me at the end of class, and he thanked me for coming. Such interactions between scientist and young learners are the best part of Project ASTRO for me.”

Other Project ASTRO professors from the department of chemistry, physics and astronomy are Dr. Arash Bodaghee, who showed Jones County High School students how to estimate the number of stars in the galaxy based on Newton’s laws and taught phases of the moon to second-graders in Baldwin County; and Dr. Sharon Careccia, who teaches space topics in Washington County.

Czogalla’s the only non-science professor teaching about space. She believes her theatre know-how qualifies her to explain complicated science to everyday people. Lighting-design skills mirror optics used in telescopes for space. Stage and production management is about workflow, problem solving and logistics – things necessary in space technology too.

Beate Czogalla explains gravity to sixth graders at Lakeview Academy in Millegeville.

Like theatre, NASA has a development period, rehearsals, construction where everything’s assembled and the mission or ‘show.’ Each field has enormous pressure to meet deadlines.

“Being able to think on my feet and solve problems as they occur – that’s something we do in theatre on a daily basis. We’re always in crisis mode,” Czogalla said. “It’s about doing things in the correct order and knowing when to anticipate problems. It’s about being very meticulous and very, very accurate.”

In addition to Project ASTRO, Czogalla’s been a NASA Solar System Ambassador for 18 years. As such, she goes to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, every year for training and to help educate tourists. She presents to groups all over Middle Georgia – from Kiwanis Clubs to nursing homes – and writes a biweekly column about space in the Union Recorder.

Throughout it all, she’s become an expert on the Mars Missions. Czogalla had to learn about black holes and the Rosetta Mission that placed an orbiting spacecraft on a comet in 2014. Last year, her topic in Pasadena was about the Deep Space Network radio telescopes in the Mojave Desert.

Next, she’ll brush up on NASA’s upcoming Mars InSight Mission – a lander carrying a big stethoscope being launched in early May to detect quakes on that planet.

Add all this to the fun she brings to students in Sal Harris’ fourth grade class at Lakeview Academy in Milledgeville through Project ASTRO – and it makes for a busy life.

Czogalla arrives in schools dressed in a flight suit embellished with space patches. She comes equipped with posters, handouts, stickers and bookmarks from NASA.

Her smile is ginormous; she’s as excited as the kids.

“It’s all about sparking minds, making future scientists and giving them the little elbow nudge they need,” she said. “I’ll keep this up as long as I can talk and still get around – and as long as people invite me.”

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