Sun and Moon Steal the Show at Star Party that Eclipsed Expectations

Ambrose welcomes the community to view the solar eclipse (photo by Jesus Salazar)

Many came with cereal box “cameras.” Some had safety glasses. A few had telescopes. Several brought lawn chairs, blankets and picnic lunches. All came wanting to learn about and share in a spectacular celestial event: a near-total eclipse of the Sun.

On Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, more than 450 people of all ages — more than the number gathered at Calgary’s Telus Spark Science Centre and comprising students, alumni, faculty, staff, friends and neighbours — gathered at Ambrose University’s Mahood Commons from 10:20 a.m.–12:50 p.m. for a Solar Eclipse Star Party that blended science, fun and community-building.

“This was a great opportunity to help people learn and feel more connected to our planet,” explains Dr. Stephen Jeans, professor of astronomy, who hosted the event along with alumni, students and members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Calgary Centre), and with the help of departments across the university.

“The general public doesn’t fully understand cosmic events and there are lots of misconceptions,” he says. “This wasn’t a ‘lesson,’ but a way to increase interest and understanding. The Sun is still a window to knowledge about how the universe works, and eclipses are very important for helping solve some of its mysteries.”

“It was also a way to show people — and especially young people — that science can be approachable and fun.”

V.P. Academic Pam Nordstrom and President Gordon Smith take turns using a pair of Dr. Jeans’ safe solar-viewing glasses
Dr. Jeans regularly hosts evening Star Parties throughout the academic year to enable students and guests to peer into the night sky, but the solar eclipse offered a rare opportunity to bring the telescopes out during the day.

Daylight shines on celestial learning

Calgary experienced a partial eclipse of about 80%, so while the skies didn’t go completely dark, at 11:33 a.m. and Calgary’s maximum eclipse, the drop in daylight and temperature was noticeable. So was the group’s enthusiasm.

Using pinhole “cameras,” special solar-viewing glasses and Ambrose University telescopes, people watched the eclipse progress as the Moon slowly cast its shadow on the Earth. Eclipse-themed music (think Don't take my Sunshine Away and Moondance) and baked treats (crescent-shaped cookies) added to the festive atmosphere.

For students and alumni, the eclipse was a tangible link to their course learning. For community members, Dr. Jeans made frequent announcements to explain what was happening in the sky. Following up on questions resulted in a running commentary, and trained alumni and student volunteers were on hand to answer questions one-on-one.

Learning happened all day long — and will continue long after the eclipse. Cameras attached to the telescopes captured beautiful images, which Dr. Jeans will use in his astronomy classes in the future.

Panoramic composite showing the eclipse over the Ambrose campus (photo by Jesus Salazar)
“We’re losing our stars in Calgary because upward-directed light ‘pollution’ is making the night sky bright,” Jeans says. “Therefore, people have lost touch with the cycle of the Moon and stars. So this was a chance to get some of that back.”

Connecting to quality science education

The window into learning that the Sun opened during the Star Party was also a window into Ambrose University and specifically the Bachelor of Science program, where biology blends with Earth and space sciences (astronomy, geology, physical geography) to offer a more-integrated view of the world.

Drs. Ryan Wilkenson (History), Darren Dyck (English) and Joel Thiessen (Sociology) taking in the eclipse with safe solar-viewing glasses

“Astronomy is about the universe, planets and stars, but it’s really about what we can see that helps us learn more about Earth,” Jeans explains. “Geology is about what’s under foot and how the Earth functions, whereas physical geography looks at the surface of the Earth and how humans interact with it.

“This all connects with biology because without geology, we wouldn’t understand the origin of minerals that keep us alive. Without astronomy we wouldn’t know that those minerals we’re all made of is ‘star stuff,’ and without physical geography we wouldn't be able to track the cycling of those minerals in our environment.”

Breaking down what have long been discipline silos deepens and broadens learning, and the success of Ambrose’s B.Sc. grads confirms the program’s quality. It’s a rigorous program, “but we want people to know science isn’t an arduous path,” Jeans says.

Preparing people to deal with an increasingly complex world

Technology is changing so quickly that growing scientific literacy — including through events like Dr. Jeans’s Star Parties — is becoming increasingly essential to navigate the world successfully.

“People walk around with cell phones, but don’t understand how they work,” Jeans notes, “or are making decisions about resource extraction, but don’t understand how science and regulations made these processes clean and efficient in some areas, but not in others.”

Dr. Stephen Jeans (Ambrose University professor of Earth and space science courses) takes a break after leading the Ambrose Solar Eclipse Party (photo by Larry McNish)

“It can be very confusing and feel like the answers are out of reach, but the liberal arts grounding in science, accessible small classes sizes and wonderful instructors at Ambrose University better prepare students to deal with the complex environment they’ll be immersed in as graduates.”

Explore the Ambrose Bachelor of Science Program

Check out this Astronomy Courses offered This Fall at Ambrose 

Evening Star Party

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017
Monday, Oct. 23, 2017

Explore the night sky! Bring family and friends to learn more about stars, nebulas, galaxies and other celestial sights. Hosted by Ambrose’s own Dr. Stephen Jeans, professor of astronomy, and Larry McNish astrophotographer from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada – Calgary Centre.

Start at 6:30 p.m. in Room A2131
Viewing 7:30–8:30 p.m. outdoors

Dress warmly!

For more info., contact