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June 12, 2007 > Three Unforgettable Nights at Glacier Point

Three Unforgettable Nights at Glacier Point

Submitted By Michael Leahy

Overhead the night sky was the clearest they had ever seen. Below - 3200 feet below - was the valley, where they hiked, swam, climbed and camped during the balance of that week prior to Memorial Day week-end. The 36 students of Alsion Montessori Middle/High in Mission San Jose were about to experience the high point of their week-long Natural History Expedition at Yosemite National Park, a star party at Glacier Point.

Alsion is a small private middle school whose enrollment rarely exceeds 40 students. Alsion uses the Montessori teaching approach to the usual state mandated academic subjects. However, in Montessori education, academic subjects are integrated into experiential projects like Alsion's annual Natural History Expeditions. Each year project teams, consisting of 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students all on the same team, research the flora, fauna, geology and climate that characterize one of California's three distinct biomes: the marine biome of Monterey Bay; high desert biome of Death Valley National Park and the alpine biome of Yosemite National Park. During the Death Valley and Yosemite Expeditions, Alsion students research the Moon, planets, stars, galaxies, nebulae, and other deep space objects as they will appear above their location during the week of the Expedition. (During the marine biome study at Monterey Bay, astronomical research is replaced by oceanographic studies in the vicinity of the Monterey Bay trench.)

Student research begins a month earlier with a half day trip to the Oakland Museum to take notes from the "California Biomes" permanent exhibit. Flora teams, for example, take notes on the native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses of the alpine biome on display at the Museum. Returning to the classroom, students find out as much as possible about biome-specific species or physical characteristics of this year's biome, such as the granite formation in the Sierra batholith, the plowing-out of great valleys at Yosemite by major glaciations. Drawing from such resources as Google, The Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Sierra Club's Handbook of the Sierra Nevada, and other library references, each team member writes a report of his or her findings. From the written reports, the team develops an illustrated group presentation which is given by team members before the entire school body. After their presentation, the team "defends" their presentations before the community of their peers and teachers.

The astronomy teams' "Consulting Astronomer" was Karl Allmendinger, a retired aerospace engineer who was responsible for the software integration of the Hubble Space Telescope while working at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale. Allmendinger and Bill DeHart, Alsion's math and science teacher guided the investigations of the student teams for the Moon, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter (Mars, unfortunately, would not be in view during the week of this year's Yosemite Expedition). There were also teams for the Ring Nebula and Bode's Galaxy (M57). Teams studied the physical processes and characteristics represented in each space object. In addition to selected NASA photos and diagrams used on each team's presentation board, a sky chart highlighted the object's approximate location in the night sky between 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time as seen from Glacier Point at Yosemite.

In preparation for the astronomy experience at this year's Expedition to Yosemite, the school loaded a 12 inch Meade "Lightbridge" Dobsonian telescope, three 70mm Meade EXT "Go To" telescopes, a pair of 80x 20 celestial binoculars, a "Sky Scout" hand-held digital planetarium, green laser pointers, and assorted red flashlights and planespheres. Since there was still snow on the ground, all were advised to dress warmly with wool caps, gloves and thermal underwear.

There was no bus transportation to Glacier Point after sundown. This problem was solved by a three vehicle convoy. A 24 foot Recreation Vehicle, or RV, carried the instruments to an from Glacier Point. The RV remained on Glacier Point overnight during the three consecutive nights of Alsion star parties to serve as a locked "storage shed" for the assembled instruments assembled on site. The School's two rented minivans each shuttled six students during the 45 minute trip from Camp Curry to Glacier point and back each night. "With gas in the National Park at $4.00 per gallon for the minivans," said Leahy, "We spent way over our budget for fuel, but it was worth every penny for students to discover Venus in its gibbous phase, Saturn's rings, Jupiter and its classical moons and the Ring Nebula."

Karl Allmendinger's role was expanded beyond "Consulting Astronomer" at Alsion. He began his involvement at Alsion by kibitzing in Bill DeHart's science lab, showing the students the principles of light refraction at the optical benches. He then introduced students to the visible light spectrum with take home spectroscopes, that students built in class. Allmendinger seemed to have a knack for engaging the interest of De Hart's young 12, 13 and 14 year-olds. Since DeHart often said he could use an extra set of hands in the lab, Allmendinger was hired to be De Hart's teacher's assistant three mornings a week at Alsion next year. And the afternoons? "The afternoons are reserved for flying," said Allmendinger, who is also an accomplished hang glider pilot. When conditions are right, he hooks into his Lightspeed hang glider and joins the red tail hawks and golden eagles soaring high over Mission Peak. On a good day he can fly over Alsion, much to the delight of his students.

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