PIQUA — Say the phrase “science class,” and those of us of a certain age are seized by flashbacks of being forced at ruler-point to memorize the periodic table, peering at who-knows-what through a microscope, and of course, the dreaded frog dissection.
But with advances in technology and teaching, a new science class at Piqua High School has students seeing stars — literally.
“One of the first questions I was asked when I was hired at PHS last year was ‘If you could teach any class on any subject, what would it be?’” recalled science instructor Amanda Ferncez. “I didn’t hesitate to answer, ‘Astronomy.’”
Ferncez’s passion for space — and earth science in general — is a lifelong love, she said. “I was the kid with the R2-D2 bed sheets, wearing out the VHS tapes for ‘Star Wars’ and ‘E.T.’ and reading Isaac Asimov for fun while other kids read ‘The Babysitters’ Club.’”
The impetus for developing an astronomy course was to give students an option that might pique their interest more than the usual offerings.
“In Ohio, students need three science credits to graduate. Typically, freshmen take physical science, and sophomores take biology, then a choice needs to be made for class number three,” explained Ferncez, who holds a bachelor’s degree in geological science from Case Western University, where she took an astronomy class from Lawrence Krauss, author of “The Physics of ‘Star Trek.”
“The dynamic duo of chemistry and physics is intimidating to some students, who may not be as motivated by or interested in science. Traditionally, the option provided for those students was Environmental Science. I taught that last year, and in chatting with the biology teachers and with my students, I found there was a lot of overlap between the two curriculums,” she continued.
”In addition, kids without any interest in the environment were tough to keep motivated. I was given the chance to offer astronomy in its place this year, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
“Overwhelmingly positive” is a bit of an understatement. Ferncez had about 50 students in Environmental Science last year; the number enrolled in astronomy this year is triple that. “The class was so popular that we had to talk about putting a cap on how many kids could take it next year, for the sake of scheduling,” she said.
Ferncez, who taught Earth Science for seven years in Maryland — “the quarter we spent on astronomy was always the most fun for me and for the students” — said there is nothing more exciting than a teenager who actually wants to learn things.
“I feel like astronomy brings that out in kids. Having an entire year to explore the topic lets us slow down and really get in-depth with things. We kicked off the year with an eclipse-viewing party, albeit the day before school started, but we still had a decent turnout,” she said.
A grant from the Miami County Foundation allowed Ferncez to purchase a large, relatively high-powered telescope, which she and the students used for a sky-viewing party behind Edison State Community College recently. “Several dozen people attended — students and families alike,” she said.
Another appealing aspect of the course is that it doesn’t rely solely on textbook information and allows for discussions that sometimes stray off the beaten path.
“On a regular basis, we get sidetracked when someone asks a tangentially related question, curious to learn more about outer space … for example, a lesson on Newton’s first law devolved into questions about whether any astronaut has ever let go of the International Space Station and been lost into space, and how many people have been to space, and on and on,” Ferncez said.
“We’re looking at things like space exploration, the multitude of companies at the forefront of it currently, and the possibility of colonizing Mars, since the latter may well happen before much longer. This winter, students will be designing Martian colonies, planning ways to keep their colonists alive, healthy, and happy on a new world. In the spring, we’ll be getting into the really mind-bending topics, like relativity, worm holes, and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.”
Space isn’t the final frontier for Ferncez, it’s an eternal one, as she’s already looking far into the future. “I already have plans brewing for the April 8, 2024, solar eclipse that we’ll be able to see in totality from Piqua.
“All in all,” she said, “It’s been a blast so far — no rocket pun intended!”
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at (937) 451-3341