Professor of natural sciences course 'Stars' shines
Tom Fleming’s Stars course isn’t like most gen-eds on campus.
The Tier 2 Natural Sciences course features learning to create fire without a match, critiquing the science in a Star Trek episode and plenty of time gazing at the night sky.
When given the chance to create a Tier 2 class, Fleming jumped at it.
“We’re going to go in depth,” he said. “In the introductory course, we spend at most one lecture on black holes. Well, we’re going to spend a whole week on black holes. But more than that, so the students can really understand why black holes are so weird, we’re going to do special relativity.”
Studying the physics of black holes may sound a bit math-intensive, but Fleming quickly reminds his students that “mathematical” is not a dirty word. Not much math is needed to understand why black holes are so powerful and how elements were formed that make up our Earth today, according to him.
But Fleming said he also realizes the need for a “romantic” counterpart to physics-based astronomy.
“That’s why we’re also going to do constellations,” he said. “We’re going to study how other cultures saw the stars and the stories behind the constellations. And, in fact, I’m going to get students under the night sky, and we’re going to look up at the stars.”
The class includes a field trip to Saguaro National Park West, where dark skies allow for optimal stargazing. Amateur astronomers typically attend the viewings with telescopes for group viewing, as well as students who have taken the class in previous semesters.
At the beginning of each semester, students are assigned their own star.
“They’re told they have to become the world’s expert on that star,” Fleming said. “When they’re done, they’re going to know more about that star than 99.9 percent of all the people on this planet. They have to write a report about it, and I’m hoping that each class, they’re thinking about how their star relates to today’s topic.”
After teaching Stars the same way for 12 years, he revamped the class to offer it in Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium rather than Centennial Hall. Some students were excited about the change.
“As someone who really appreciates having a direct learning experience, I really like being in Flandrau,” said Ashley Edson, a special education major.
Above all else, though, Fleming loves his job, and he relishes in every moment.
“After I teach a class, I feel like I’ve performed in a three-hour Broadway show,” he said. “I get to act out. I consider my Stars class my show, and I hope some people appreciate it.”