NASA Ambassadors

Teaching Eclipse Literacy at Friends' Central

Upper School physics teacher Deborah Skapik has recently been selected to be a NASA Partner Eclipse Ambassador. And Deb was thrilled to discover that a former student of hers, Ha-Eun Choi ’21, is also a NASA Eclipse Ambassador. 

“The Ambassador program,” explained Deb, “is designed to teach eclipse literacy, which is exactly what I’m interested in.” It draws in a mixture of educators and people of all ages – undergraduates through amateur astronomers. Deb was part of the NASA Ambassador Eclipse program in 2017. The program has since expanded, and the application and selection process is now longer and more extensive.

“The NASA Eclipse Ambassador program aims to train people to run workshops that teach people how to watch safely,” explained Deb. “The idea is to put out the right information and get as many people out there looking at the eclipse as safely as possible. As Ambassadors, we’re responsible for this outreach, and to have NASA’s backing is what I’m so excited about.” 

“There are two eclipses on the horizon,” said Deb. “On October 14, 2023, there will be an annular solar eclipse, where the moon will come in front of the sun but not cover it completely for anybody in the country; there will be a ring of sunlight around it. So it’s very beautiful, but it’s an eclipse that no one will be able to watch without eye protection. On April 8, 2024, there will be a total eclipse. For both events, here in Philadelphia, there will be a partial eclipse, with a deeper partial eclipse for the one in April next year. To get to eclipse totality in Pennsylvania in April 2024, you’d have to be up around Erie.” 

“Seeing a partial eclipse is exciting and beautiful but experiencing a total eclipse – for so many reasons that are non-astronomical – is just incredible.”

Deb Skapik, Upper School Physics Teacher

“I’m hoping that the October 2023 event will get people excited about the April 2024 one. Seeing a partial eclipse is exciting and beautiful but experiencing a total eclipse – for so many reasons that are non-astronomical – is just incredible. I consider the October eclipse to be a ‘teaser.’”

At Friends’ Central this summer, Deb will be running a Summer Science Institute in Observational Astronomy with a concentration in eclipses. The Summer Science Institute will be a four-day program, open to all current FCS students in rising ninth grade and above. Participants will learn about “celestial mechanics” – what’s actually going on in the sky – and all about the eclipse. “They’ll be trained in, among other things, how to use a telescope, how to set up the equipment, how to help others at a telescope viewing, how to know at which phase during the eclipse you need to wear goggles and when you can remove them, and how to view the sun in projection,” Deb explained.

Deb’s newly published educator’s guide to the eclipse, Look UP, Below!

Through the Summer Science Institute, Deb will be forming the Moonshadow Team, a team of FCS students who will themselves become FCS eclipse ambassadors. In the fall, Moonshadow Team members will go to local schools in the Philadelphia area to hold workshops where they will train teachers and students to watch the eclipse. Ultimately, the aim is for the Moonshadow Team to travel to Vermont prior to the 2024 eclipse. “In Vermont at that time,” said Deb, “we will also have three FCS alums, Adele Goldader ’22 (Deb’s daughter), Tucker Wolfson ’21, and Konrad Sieniatecki-Smith ’23, all of whom are – or will be – students at Champlain College. I’m working with a place called the ECHO, Leahy Center on Lake Champlain, which is a science center where we’re planning to do some events and workshops prior to the eclipse.”    

Deb’s boundless energy and her enthusiasm for eclipse literacy extends beyond the hands-on classroom and workshop training sessions. She is the author of the recently published Look UP, Below!, an educator’s guide to the April 2024 eclipse, written with the support of a Hendrie stipend. This July, Deb will be traveling with copies of Look UP, Below! to a meeting of physics teachers in Sacramento, CA, and then she’ll be driving with her textbook from Indianapolis north to Burlington, Vermont and reaching out to local public libraries to try to get them to hold events where she can give out the book to educators and Title I eligible schools.

“Many of us are recognizing that this, in 2024, is the major eclipse that we’re going to see in our lifetimes, passing over the continental US in this way.”

Deb Skapik

“When we had our recent virtual meeting of the NASA Ambassadors,” Deb shared, “I was in a break-out room where I met with three people from across the country, all at different stages of life. We introduced ourselves and discussed why we were drawn to the program. There was a fellow about my age going back to school to be trained as an astronomer, having been, like me, interested in astronomy since childhood. Many of us are recognizing that this, in 2024, is the major eclipse that we’re going to see in our lifetimes, passing over the continental US in this way. And if you want to see other eclipses, you’ll have to travel to them. This time, it’s coming to us, so make sure to get out there and see it!”

Team Radio Phoenix presenting in Hawai’i in 2019 at the American Astronomical Society Meeting(from left) Deb Skapik, Ha-Eun Choi ’21, Sofia Diaz ’20, Elisabeth Forsyth ’20, Harper Will ’21, and Alex Wang 20

NASA Ambassador Ha-Eun Choi ’21

Ha-Eun Choi ’21

When she discovered that her former student, Ha-Eun Choi ’21, was also a NASA Eclipse Ambassador, Deb was delighted. “I hadn’t realized that Ha-Eun had also applied to be an Ambassador, and we were both so excited to find we’d been independently selected for the program,” said Deb.

A second-year student at Colgate University, Ha-Eun is on her way to becoming a research astrophysicist. At Colgate, she’s active on campus, running the planetarium and working in Colgate’s observatory. In the spring of 2024, Ha-Eun will be heading to the University of Wollongong in Australia for a semester abroad. While she won’t be on the continent for the 2024 eclipse, she’ll take part in planning pre-eclipse educational events. 

As a student at FCS, Ha-Eun was a member of Team Radio Phoenix, a group founded in 2017 by FCS students interested in astronomy and mentored by Deb Skapik. Ha-Eun traveled with Team Radio Phoenix to Hawai’i in 2019 to present at the American Astronomical Society Meeting. AAS members and colleagues come from across the globe to learn and to share their latest research with an audience of astronomers and space scientists at all career stages, including a select group of high school and college students. 

“It was impressive to see Ha-Eun evolve from a physics student who was interested in asteroids, to doing the research that she did on asteroids here at FCS, to the Pulsar research, and now beyond into college,” Deb said. “It was an incredible experience watching her grow. I’m just amazed by the things she’s done.” 

We recently caught up with Ha-Eun for a Q&A.

  • What inspired you to be a NASA Ambassador?
    My advisor here at Colgate, Thomas Balonek, brought up the opportunity to become a NASA Eclipse Ambassador to me, and I was immediately excited by the prospect. Particularly as an Asian American woman pursuing a career in STEM, I’m passionate about becoming a role model for young, curious minds and filling the spot of representation I rarely saw growing up. So, along with research, I’m interested in outreach and education as well.
  • What are you majoring in at Colgate?
    I’m an Astronomy/Physics major and an Art/Art History minor.
Ha-Eun (right) and colleague in the Colgate observatory
  • What extracurricular activities are you participating in at Colgate? 
    I’m heavily involved in Colgate’s planetarium, the Ho Tung Visualization Lab. There, I work as a presenter, playing various weekly shows and giving talks on the night sky as I fly through space across the screen of the dome. I also am involved with Colgate’s observatory, Foggy Bottom, where I spent most of last summer conducting research on the optical variability of quasars. Along with that, I’m generally involved with all aspects of astronomy at Colgate and have actively sought out learning how to use all of our instruments, including our 16-inch telescope, 8-inch telescopes, evScope, and solar scope. Lastly, I’ve also just been elected to be the new president of Colgate’s Astronomy and Astrophotography club, and I’m actively involved in our Korean Culture Association as Publicity Chair. 
  • What were some highlights from your time at FCS?
    Everything I was able to learn and engage with through my classes with Dr. Skapik, Team Radio Phoenix, and F.A.S.T. (Friends’ Central’s Asteroid Search Team)! Through working with the Pulsar Search Collaboratory and spending much of my free time sifting through and analyzing data, my initial interest in science was nurtured and grown into the full passion for astronomy and physics that I hold today. Some highlights overall are the trips I went on with Radio Phoenix – to Bucknell, West Virginia University (for the capstone event for the Pulsar Search Collaboratory), and Hawai’i – as well as my FCS senior project during which I prepared and gave astronomy lessons to some classes at the Lower School. The opportunity that myself and my peers were given to present our work at the 235th Astronomical Society Meeting (in Hawai’i) was a major highlight from my time at FCS. Getting to present alongside professionals that I strive to become like was a valuable experience that I’ll never forget. This trip further solidified my goals and boosted my confidence in my abilities.

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