Stellar Observations

Dr. Carrie Fitzgerald

Photo: Sanjay Suchak

“Everybody wants to know where they fit into the bigger universe,” said Dr. Harold Williams, when asked why his Introduction to Astronomy class fills every semester and why thousands of Washington area residents visit the planetarium on the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus. Williams’s Rockville Campus counterpart, Dr. Carrie Fitzgerald, also teaches to capacity crowds every semester and welcomes guests at open house events at Montgomery College’s observatory. As she explains it, “Astronomy is a great ‘gateway drug’ to subjects like physics, engineering, and even mathematics.”

Budding scientists, amateur astronomers, and students who need a lab science for transfer annually turn to Montgomery College’s vast resources for teaching astronomy. This includes the only planetarium in the Washington area at which students can take a class, as well as a brand-new observatory boasting two, 14-inch telescopes on a rolling roof structure and piers for three more. Moreover, students at the Science Center on the Rockville Campus can observe what the telescopes are doing via smart stations in the classrooms.

“For a two-year college, we have some very sophisticated equipment,” said Fitzgerald, who earned a PhD at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She began teaching here shortly before the 2010 opening of the innovative, science laboratory facility. Fitzgerald enjoys teaching a diverse group of students in the classroom, and she shares that passion for teaching at public nights for astronomy enthusiasts. “We hosted nearly 150 people at the transit of Venus event,” she said. When a cloudy forecast threatened to cancel the event, Fitzgerald enlisted the help of the College’s IT department to set up a web feed of the event in the campus’s Theatre Arts Building.

Students competing in the 2012 National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition.

Photo: Courtesy Carrie Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s resourcefulness—and her teaching prowess—really shined when she mentored a group of students competing in the 2012 National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition in Bozeman, Mont. Fitzgerald and her husband, Ryan, an adjunct professor and a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, also traveled with the team, whose first-ever entry earned them an award in the Science Observations category. Group member Mike Satinu, said “Dr. Carrie kept the group organized and encouraged us to keep monthly reports, while Dr. Ryan gave us hints to approach and to solve the problem.”

Equally devoted to teaching, Williams, director of the planetarium for more than 20 years, hosts all comers, from hundreds of school-aged children to senior citizens. With adjunct faculty status, the PhD from Louisiana State University also teaches one class a semester and often one online section.

Drs. Williams and Fitzgerald believe the College’s astronomy facilities rival those at four-year schools. “We encourage the public to participate in our events. We want them to see what great opportunities are right in their backyards,” said Fitzgerald, who hopes participants in the free events will encourage relatives, friends, and neighbors to take a class. Perhaps Williams captured the sentiment best: “I wholeheartedly believe in putting the ‘community’ in community college.”

—Jill Fitzgerald

This article first appeared in the fall 2012 issue of Insights.

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