September 11, 2017Vol. 48, Issue 1

Mother Nature Eclipses First-Day Excitement

Chico State observes rare phenomenon for first time in 130 years

On August 21, 2017, people of all ages gathered on Glenn Lawn to witness a solar eclipse with certified safety glasses, welding masks, and other safe and creative ways to enjoy the view.

Eager and anxious students returning to Chico State for the first day of classes were greeted by Mother Nature and a little welcome back show of her own.

A solar eclipse—and the highest percentage of the moon covering the sun Chico State has seen in nearly 130 years—greeted students, faculty, and staff during an eclipse viewing party coordinated by the Office of the Provost.

With its official start at 9 a.m., early birds brought blankets to claim their spots on Glenn Lawn, as elementary school-aged children and their families mixed with faculty and staff that poured out of offices for a quick or lasting glance, while passers-by paused to partake in history. If you walked around Glenn Lawn for two minutes, you would have seen certified safety glasses and welding masks, along with art easels and emptied cereal boxes.

Art students set up three easels beneath a pair of red oaks, near an area for guided meditation. Small openings between the leaves naturally diffused the light into creeping crescent shapes across the sheets of paper, and students were encouraged to sketch the play of light and shadows as they walked by.

The August 21 total solar eclipse was the first of its kind during the age of smartphones and social media in America.

The August 21 total solar eclipse was the first of its kind during the age of smartphones and social media in America.

“It’s kind of like making your mark on the world,” senior art student Madison Cockrum said of the sketches. “It feels like it’s such an important event, and you have to document it in your life somehow to say, ‘I was here to witness this.’”

Debra Barger, dean of Regional & Continuing Education (RCE), has always been fascinated with anything celestial. So when this year’s solar eclipse fell on the first day of fall classes, she knew she had to plan something to celebrate the phenomenon.

She proposed the viewing party idea to University Provost Debra Larson, who enthusiastically told Barger “make it happen and make it big.” So, Barger, Lori Fuentes from the provost’s office, and Mary Wallmark from Student Life and Leadership collaborated to create a shining example of the Chico Experience.

Nearly 300 pairs of glasses to safely view the eclipse were ordered. Members of the provost’s office tabled all around Glenn Lawn, sharing facts, answering questions, and loaning eclipse viewing cards provided by the Gateway Science Museum. The postcard-sized viewing cards feature a 3-millimeter hole to direct the sun’s light onto another surface, like a blank piece of paper. This dot of light safely reveals the moon’s progress across the sun.

Creative Media and Technology provided sound equipment for Glenn Lawn, broadcast special music from Trinity Tower for the duration of the eclipse, and livestreamed the sun’s show from the roof of Meriam Library. Its crews also produced a special video to highlight the enormity of the campus party and event’s significance.

Stationed directly in front of Glenn Hall, the physics department entertained the most traffic. Nick Nelson, an ebullient assistant professor and a specialist in solar physics, was the de facto emcee, excitedly announcing the eclipse play by play.

“We’re lucky because our moon is almost exactly the right size and distance from earth to completely block the sun,” Nelson said, noting a total solar eclipse is visible somewhere on earth only about every 18 months. “There are literally hundreds of other moons around other planets in our solar system and none of them have the right combination of size and distance from their planet to produce a total eclipse.”

The Student Physics Society assisted Nelson, sharing a homemade pinhole camera he’d fashioned from an old Life cereal box, answering questions, performing demonstrations, and monitoring multiple Sunspotters. The short sandwich board-like instruments reflected the sun’s light off a series of mirrors onto a white surface, mimicking the moon’s movements across the sun. The moon continued its march, and by 10 a.m. the crowd had spilled off of Glenn Lawn and around the George Petersen Rose Garden. While shadows continue to shift on Glenn Hall’s southern façade, Barger joyfully meandered around Glenn Lawn with a few pairs of safety glasses, exclaiming, “Hi, I’m Debra, and we’re sharing glasses!”

“We knew we wanted to foster a shared experience, reinforced by sharing eclipse viewing glasses,” Barger said. “The way the community formed and embraced all of the cooperating and sharing exemplifies the best of the Chico culture.”

Viewing cards with a 3-millimeter hole direct the sun’s light onto another surface to safely reveal the moon’s progress across the sun.

Viewing cards with a 3-millimeter hole direct the sun’s light onto another surface to safely reveal the moon’s progress across the sun.

Melissa McGowan, marketing director of RCE, brought two kitchen colanders from home, which she and her colleagues tilted above the sidewalk to cast dozens of tiny crescents on the pavement.

“We didn’t need high-tech cameras or viewing devices to get a good look at the eclipse in motion,” McGowan said. “A couple of simple kitchen colanders made a great show of the crescent sun.”

By 10:17 a.m., when coverage maxed out at 85 percent, a crowd of well over 1,000 people stretched past the Three Sisters statues and edged up to Kendall Hall. Nearly everyone with some type of safe viewing instrument looked upward. As the sun’s light transformed to resemble dusk, the temperature noticeably dipped.

At about this time, Associated Students President Dylan Gray, who was let out of his 10 a.m. class early so he and his classmates could experience the eclipse, arrived at Glenn Lawn. He only had to wait a moment before another student offered Gray glasses so he could look at this rare celestial event.

“That really contributed to the warm, communal feel,” Gray said. “Everyone wanted to make sure we all experienced this together.”

While Chico State wasn’t in the “path of totality” this time around, the University still enjoyed a hefty 85 percent of coverage, the largest for the area since a total solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. The US will next experience a solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, cutting a diagonal from Mexico, up through Texas, and northward to eastern Canada (with about 32 percent coverage). Chico’s next total solar eclipse is August 12, 2045.

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