Core legend: Astronomy

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From left, students Katherine Henderson, Zachary Willcutt, Rebecca Deisch, Gregory Frisby, Maggie Dostalik, and Jeanne LaGarde enjoy the Mayterm class, Astronomy in Michigan. Photo credit Katherine Henderson

Following my November article on Junior Poet as a legendary class, at the University of Dallas I recently sat down with physics professor Dr. Richard Olenick. In 1981 he founded UD’s Astronomy course, which has since become one of UD’s academic legends.

“I had an interest in [astronomy], and I thought it would be a very good Core science, because it gives a perspective of the whole universe,” Olenick said.

Olenick has taught the course here in Irving continuously since its inception. In 2002, he also added a Mayterm class in which students traveled to Colorado in order to avoid light pollution from cities, which interferes with the results of the nighttime observing labs. Four years ago, the Mayterm class moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Of course, the class has undergone major changes through its years here at UD. Olenick suggested that most of these are due to technological advancements, and that those who study astronomy now are blessed to have so much more information and access than when the course began.

“The class actually changes year to year, because technology is moving so quickly right now,” Olenick said.

Senior spanish major Juliana Gallagher took Astronomy the last time it was offered, during the spring semester of 2015. She spoke about the importance of the sciences, and particularly astronomy, in a UD education.

“Here at UD, we pride ourselves on studying a Core curriculum that incorporates all fields of study including the physical sciences,” Gallagher said. “A UD education is not just about knowing certain facts … [but rather] about being brave enough to delve into any intellectual discussion in order to continually improve our understanding of the truths that govern the world … I think that’s where the bridge between the fields of study lies; I want to understand the world in which I am, so naturally I must look at what’s in front of me.”

When asked why he continues to teach the course rather than pass it on to another professor, Olenick said simply:

“I like to see the lights go on when students see things … in the dark, when they see something for the first time through a telescope.”

His favorite aspect of the class is the diversity that results from teaching a variety of majors.

“I often ask students to come up with a project that relates astronomy to their major, and I’ve gotten some really creative responses,” Olenick said.

When we were sitting in his office, he even pointed out a series of prints that an art major had made, as well as a painting of the star of Bethlehem done by a seminarian in the astronomy class.

Gallagher suggested that Olenick’s instruction makes the class as legendary as its subject material.

“A lot of the legendary aspect of Astronomy has to do with Dr. O.,” Gallagher said. “He is a legend … There are stories that have been passed down by legacy families about the various ways he evaded the Charity Week Jail back in the day. You can tell that he loves what he does because he teaches in such a joyful and humorous manner. As a kinetic learner, I really enjoyed his in-class demonstrations that were engaging and interactive. He also incorporates fun stories into his lectures. I also enjoyed the labs; getting to go out and see the stars is a treat. I love how I can identify constellations now.”

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