ASTRO 801
Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe

Meet the Instructor, Michelle Wooten

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Welcome to ASTRO 801!

I want to take this opportunity to introduce myself, since many of us will not have the opportunity to meet face to face (although you are all very welcome to come visit me if you happen to be local or visit campus for any reason).

My name is Michelle Wooten, and I have a great interest in publicizing astronomy. Growing up in a valley in Southern California, it was rare that I could see a handful of stars at night. A sort of orange glow lit up the summer night sky, which I later learned was light pollution, enhanced by a reflective layer of smog. On one especially clear night, I could see more than a dozen stars and I became very intrigued. I begged my parents to take me camping so I could learn the constellations. Thankfully, Joshua Tree National Park was about one-hour away. While my parents slept in their tent, I stayed up until 4 in the morning for two nights in a row and used a star wheel to memorize all the visible constellations. Believe it or not, I have never forgotten them since!

Soon after this experience, I decided that I was going to become an astrophysicist. I took a first step as a high-schooler, as a NASA Sharp Plus summer intern. In this internship, I studied with astronomers at University of Wisconsin how spectroscopy is used to deduce the amount of water a comet produces. Surprisingly, this internship helped me realize that sitting alone in an office crunching numbers was not my thing (this is not everyone’s experience doing astronomy, but it was my experience at that time). Subsequently, throughout my first years of college I wondered how I could pair my love of astronomy with something more social. Studying abroad in New Zealand one year, I discovered such a passion that continues to engage me today: astronomy education. I was invited to give weekly planetarium presentations on the southern skies at the Stardome Observatory in Auckland!

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Practicing planetarium presenting at the Stardome Observatory in Auckland, New Zealand during my study abroad (2004).
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Visiting the eastern-most observatory in Titirangi, New Zealand (2004).

After my undergraduate program, I interned at NASA Headquarters and worked at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (2005 – 2006) as an astronomy educator. Lucky me! It was in that year that Space Ship One was hung above the main Museum floor, and I physically crossed paths with folks like Burt Rutan, Tom Hanks, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong (no joke!).

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Getting ready to do some planetarium presenting at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (2006).

While doing some soul-searching about next steps, my mentor at the Museum (astronomy curator David Devokin) encouraged me to pursue a Master’s in physics and astronomy to become better acquainted with my discipline. During my Master’s, I conducted two-years of research on dark matter in galaxy clusters, and three years of research on student-centered ways of teaching celestial motions to undergraduates. I then engaged in a three-year education research position at the University of Alaska Anchorage (Go Seawolves!) to study the impacts of a novel undergraduate astronomy curriculum that I also taught. The research project’s aim was enabling students to contribute to scientific research through projects conducted in class

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Presenting research on dark matter at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in 2009.

While doing some soul-searching about next steps, my mentor at the Museum (astronomy curator David Devokin) encouraged me to pursue a Master’s in physics and astronomy to become better acquainted with my discipline. During my Master’s, I conducted two-years of research on dark matter in galaxy clusters, and three years of research on student-centered ways of teaching celestial motions to undergraduates. I then engaged in a three-year education research position at the University of Alaska Anchorage (Go Seawolves!) to study the impacts of a novel undergraduate astronomy curriculum that I also taught. The research project’s aim was enabling students to contribute to scientific research through projects conducted in class.

Perhaps you see a trend by now! Astronomy, education, and research continue to circulate in my professional activity. My primary research interests have recently shifted toward the philosophy of knowledge generation, particularly on social phenomenon: I critically engage with assumptions about what we can know and the consequences that particular research methods have for those who are studied.

When I am not studying, teaching, and researching astronomy and education, I am riding my bike, taking a walk with my spouse (currently a researcher in the physics department at Penn State), playing with my cats, attending Happy Valley Improv, dancing with the Central Pennsylvania Dance Workshop, and reading continental philosophy.

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Sharing views of the Moon moving in front of the Sun as the total solar eclipse became visible from Nashville, Tennessee (2017).

I hope that you enjoy your astronomy course and achieve the goals that you set when you registered. If you have any questions about the content of this course or about anything astronomy related that you see in the media you should never hesitate to ask. My goal in teaching this course is to share the exciting discoveries that astronomers are making every day and to instill in you an interest in the science that will lead you to watch the occasional clip on CNN about the rings of Saturn or read a story on the Hubble Space Telescope in the New York Times.