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College of Arts and Sciences Newsroom

UD professor’s virtual ‘night under the stars’ inspires student astronomy club

By Dave Larsen

University of Dayton associate professor Matt Lopper ’98 wasn’t sure what sort of response he’d get after sending an email to students on a Friday night in late April, inviting them to join him for a virtual astronomy tour — using his home telescope, a modified webcam and Zoom video conferencing software.

Within a few minutes after his 9 p.m. email, the first student connected. Soon, they were joined by at least a dozen more.

“We spent the next two hours looking at live views of Venus and some double stars through the telescope and I showed them some old pictures of the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune that I've taken over the past few years,” said Lopper, an astronomy buff who teaches chemistry and biochemistry. “There were oohs and ahhs, there was laughing and there were lots of questions about what I was showing them. It was an incredibly rewarding experience.”

Even more gratifying — in less than a week, several of those students founded a new campus organization, the Dayton Astronomy Research Club (DARC), established an executive board and recruited 30 potential members.

“Our hope is that this club at Dayton will allow those interested in astronomy to come together and experience the night sky together,” said Rachel Daley, a junior biochemistry major from Pittsburgh and DARC co-vice president. “Our goal is to get a grant that will allow funding for a telescope and other equipment, and to research with professional astronomers throughout the warmer seasons when we are back on campus.”

Lopper’s love of astronomy started in 1986 at age 10, when Halley’s Comet last paid a visit to our inner solar system. While he doesn’t teach astronomy, he occasionally works its connections to chemistry and biochemistry into lectures.

His virtual tour was inspired by his desire to connect with his students following the suspension of in-person classes in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After several weeks of remote teaching, he thought Zoom might be used for broadcasting more than biochemistry course content. Looking out his window at twilight on April 24 and seeing a deep blue sky rimmed in orange near the western horizon, he grabbed his astronomy gear from the closet, set it up on his driveway, and sent an email to his 28 spring semester students with the Zoom link and an invitation to join him for a “night under the stars.”

“Dr. Lopper is my favorite professor at UD, so when he emailed us to join him while looking through his telescope, I did not hesitate to join — even though it was a Friday night,” said Jenna Sizemore, a biochemistry major from Cincinnati and DARC co-vice president. “I cannot honestly say astronomy has been a major interest of mine, but I figured this was a great way to have social interaction with my friends and classmates from UD that I hadn't seen in what feels like a lifetime. I guess a lot of others felt the same way, because that Friday night he had almost 20 participants that came and went for two hours.”

Matthew Bugada, a junior biochemistry major from Cincinnati and DARC president, said Lopper often engages students in a way that incites curiosity and inspires them to apply what they learn in the classroom to the larger world.

“The two-hour conversation we had as we gazed up was also a unifying experience, even though most of us were scattered across the country,” Bugada said. “It was fun learning about the stars and asking Dr. Lopper questions, and we knew we wanted to do this more, which is how DARC started. We also never realized the awe and excitement of astronomy until we were given this unique experience, since there are no other opportunities on campus for it.”

Lopper will serve as DARC’s adviser when the club launches this fall. He plans to keep the momentum going this spring and summer by hosting more “night under the stars” gatherings via Zoom. Anyone interested in participating is invited to email and ask to be added to his astronomy email list.

“On clear nights when I can get out with my scope and webcam, I'll launch Zoom and send out a link to everyone on my astronomy email list to join me for live views of the Moon, planets and bright stars,” Lopper said. “During this spring season, Venus is well placed for viewing in the evening sky. Jupiter and Saturn will steal the show later this summer when they start to rise higher into the night sky in July. And the Moon makes its appearance every month as it goes through its various phases from new to full. There's always something new to see.”

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