May 25, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 18

current issue
archive / search

    Quantrell Teaching Award: Richard Kron

    It would be easy for a man like Richard Kron to distance himself from astronomy education. He has rapidly climbed to pinnacles of responsibility within his profession. He serves, concurrently, as Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Director of Yerkes Observatory, head of the Experimental Astrophysics Group at Fermilab and survey director for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey -- which, when it is completed, will be the most detailed map of the universe scientists have ever seen.

    But for Kron, part of what makes astronomy fun is communicating the excitement of cutting-edge research to students, especially to undergraduates who don't plan to major in science.

    Kron teaches part of the Physical Sciences sequence in astronomy and part of the Natural Sciences sequence in the physical and biological sciences. The theme of the curriculum in the Natural Sciences sequence is evolution, and the first quarter, which Kron taught last fall, concentrates on the evolution of the universe. The second quarter continues with the evolution of a planet, and by the end of the two-year sequence, students are studying natural selection and ecological interactions.

    "It's a really fun concept to work within," said Kron, "and I'm at the head end, so I get to give the students an idea of where we all started. The challenge is to find a way to translate the problems that are interesting from a research perspective into terms that someone who is not going to be a scientist can appreciate."

    Fortunately for Kron, a topic intimately related to the evolution of the universe was hotly debated in the news last fall -- the age of the universe. Kron, who knew ahead of time that results from the Hubble Space Telescope were going to be announced, primed his students by teaching them how astronomers measure time: the rate at which stars burn fuel, which gives the age of the oldest stars, and the rate of expansion of the universe, which gives the age of the universe.

    "When the Hubble Space Telescope results [about the rate of expansion of the universe] were announced, the literal interpretation was that the universe is younger than the oldest stars," Kron said. "But by teaching my students how measurements in astronomy are made, I got them to think about why these results are interesting and whether or not they are really a problem. I got them to examine the question of whether it is enough that the measurements are in the same ballpark, or is there something wrong with our picture of the universe? I was able to convey some of the enthusiasm and some of the excitement of current research and teach them that interesting things in astronomy are happening now."

    But for Kron, teaching doesn't end when the lecture is over. He is hands-on in the laboratory as well. He works with a small group of students, usually three to four each quarter, who elect to spend the quarter working on one project rather than doing a sequence of eight labs. These students spend cloudy nights assembling optics and instruments in the laboratory, and then clear nights with the instruments attached to a telescope, observing the universe from the roof of the Kersten Physics Teaching Center.

    Last fall, students worked with Kron and graduate student Jeff Jewell on the Dunham optical telescope. The Dunham telescope is a research-quality telescope originally intended as the model for a larger telescope that was never actually built. Kron convinced the Fund for Astrophysical Research to donate the instrument to the University 10 years ago. The students made an indirect measurement of the distance from the earth to the sun -- a fundamental measurement in astronomy -- by looking at the motion of a star.

    "Instead of just reading about these kinds of measurements out of a textbook," said Kron, "I like students to do the measurements themselves. They learn to follow a chain of logic to a nontrivial conclusion, and in the process, they trace some of the history of how our picture of the universe developed. At the beginning of the quarter, they don't know which end of the telescope to look into, but by the end, they can not only operate the telescope but collect and interpret meaningful data."

    Kron also teaches Chicago-area high school students in the Space Explorers program. These students spend a week every summer at Yerkes Observatory and then come to campus once or twice a week during the school year.

    "We use the same laboratory facilities in Kersten that we use for the undergraduates," said Kron, "and I find that there is a wonderful synergism between the two groups. What I learn from the undergraduate labs I apply in the Space Explorers program, and vice versa. That has really worked out much better than I would have thought."

    Kron's own research is the observation of faraway stars and galaxies and the evolution of stellar systems. He is a natural-born astronomer -- both of his parents were astronomers, and he grew up in and around observatories. He received his B.S. in physics in 1972 from the University of Arizona and his Ph.D. in 1978 from Berkeley, the same year he joined the faculty at Chicago.

    -- Diana Steele