Astronomer at UMass Amherst Receives $75,000 Grant to Expand Sunwheel

AMHERST, Mass. - Judith Young, astronomer at the University of Massachusetts, has received a $75,000 grant to expand the campus sunwheel, an astronomical calendar located on the southwest corner of the campus. The funding is from the National Science Foundation''s POWRE (Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education) program. Like Stonehenge, the stones of a sunwheel align perfectly with the rising and setting sun at the times of solstices and equinoxes.

The UMass sunwheel contributes significantly to public science education, Young said. She has made astronomy presentations to the more than 1,500 individuals and 800 schoolchildren who have already visited the preliminary sunwheel, which was constructed in May of 1997. Some of the topics she speaks on include the seasons, measuring time, the phases of the moon, eclipses, and light and shadows. "The sunwheel is valuable because it takes a complex scientific phenomenon and puts it into an everyday context which people of all ages can experience and understand," said Young.

The circle, currently marked by two-feet-high boulders, has a 50-foot radius. These stones serve as placeholders for the eight-foot-tall monoliths that Young hopes to have installed late this summer with the grant money, in time for the autumnal equinox. The taller stones will allow the circle to be visible in all seasons, regardless of high grasses or accumulated snow. The final circle will be 120 feet in diameter. In the meantime, the rocks already in place serve as a teaching tool, making astronomical ideas visible and concrete for students ranging from University undergraduates to local schoolchildren and the general public.

The next major event will be the vernal equinox on March 20, when Young will give short talks at the sunwheel at sunrise, 5:45 a.m., and sunset, 5:15 p.m. She will also give a moonrise presentation at sunset on March 19 at approximately 5:15 p.m., as the full moon is rising.

Young was inspired to create the UMass sunwheel during a trip to Montana in 1992, where she saw a sunwheel constructed long ago, probably by the Blackfeet Indian tribe. The UMass sunwheel is the only one in the country located at a university, according to Young. The public is welcome to visit the sunwheel at any time.

"Students today see technology as such an integral part of the world, it''s hard for them to imagine learning without it. This is not a classroom lesson or even a planetarium, with an artificial sky. This is the real thing, and it''s happening right before our eyes," Young said. "Einstein said, ''Knowledge is experience; everything else is just information.'' Are you going to learn about astronomy in books, or are you going to go out and watch it happen?"

NOTE: Judith Young can be reached at 413/545-4311 or young@astro.umass.edu. More information: www.umass.edu/sunwheel.