At 3 a.m. on the Sunday of Homecoming weekend, Dr. Jeff Butikofer ’00, alumni Dano Grayson and Jacob Bruess along with a few friends took turns gazing into the eyepiece of Upper Iowa University’s 8” Meade LX90 telescope. Looking at a gray cloud surrounded by a few bright stars, no one seemed to be impressed with the Orion Nebula. Butikofer then attempted to get a shot with his camera. After a few clicks, the group gathered around the digital screen and shouted when a colorful display depicted the nebula in greens and reds.
“That was an awesome moment,” said Butikofer, who is an associate professor of environmental science at UIU. “It was hands-on learning at its finest. The reason it looked like a gray mass was because our telescope doesn’t collect very much light from faint objects like the Orion Nebula and our eyes are not very sensitive to color in such dim light. The University’s Canon Rebel T3i camera was able to pick up that color. Once Dano captured the image with his professional grade camera, the display was even more spectacular.”
That learning experience was as good as it gets, according to Butikofer.
What started as a hobby for Butikofer has translated to the classroom. For several years now, he has been teaching the introductory Astronomy course on the Fayette campus in addition to chemistry. In late 2011, he was able to capture the image below of the planet Jupiter and its four large moons.
Since then, an interest in exploring the nighttime sky has been building. With the aid of a teaching with technology grant last year, Butikofer was able to upgrade viewing equipment for the class and incorporate a telescope and astrophotography project into astronomy lab. A webcam camera for planetary imaging has only enhanced the students’ abilities to capture images of portions of the Moon. Butikofer is then able to edit the frames together to get a spectacular view.
When Butikofer is conducting lab or stargazing on his own, he invites the UIU community to share in the learning experiences that he and the class are having along the way. They typically meet on the practice football field. He likes to share his enthusiasm for astronomy with the community and hopes that future generations will stay involved with the science. He recently presented a poster at a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) educators’ conference on efforts to inspire future teachers to work with telescopes in order to inspire the next generation of students to go into STEM fields.
Through November, Butikofer will occasionally be out in the early morning hours hoping to catch a glimpse of the Comet ISON. If it survives its passage around the sun (closest approach is on Thanksgiving Day), it could provide a spectacular views through December. Also in December, he hopes to view the Geminid Meteor Shower.