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New Educator Stars At Md. Planetarium

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By JULIE E. GREENE
The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — “What contributes to light pollution at night?”

The sun. The moon. Buildings.

Those are some of the answers Ms. Crawford and Ms. Nase’s fourth-grade students from Hickory Elementary School typed into their interactive handheld devices to answer Mr. Kopco’s question.

All were correct, Chris Kopco, the new teacher for Washington County Public Schools’ William Brish Planetarium, told the students.

“It’s a dream job,” said Kopco, who previously taught science at E. Russell Hicks Middle School in Hagerstown’s South End.

Kopco is taking over a post that Rod Martin held for 27 years until retiring this summer. Martin has made himself available to help Kopco, who said he has emailed Martin often with questions about equipment.

As planetarium teacher, Kopco will teach thousands of schoolchildren and host public programs on many Tuesday evenings during the school year. This year’s public program schedule begins Tuesday with the Cowboy Astronomer, a tour of the night sky that includes a history of some constellations, “cowboy style.” New this year is a program that focuses on NASA’s New Horizons mission, which has a spacecraft on its way to the dwarf planet Pluto.

Kopco, 33, of Waynesboro, Pa., also took over Skylights, a monthly sky tour provided through a podcast at antpod.com.

Besides teaching prekindergartners through eighth-graders, who visit the planetarium during school hours, school system officials expect to begin offering an after-school astronomy program for high school students as early as this semester.

Currently, high school students don’t go to the planetarium during the school day because of scheduling issues, but they are encouraged to attend the public programs, according to Kopco and Kara Reed, supervisor for elementary math and science. The new, voluntary after-school program for high school students would be offered once a semester.

The school system also has a portable, inflatable Starlab planetarium that Kopco can use at schools for programs during the school day or evening. The mini planetarium can accommodate about 30 youths, who have to crawl into the planetarium dome, Reed said.

“I’ve always, definitely had an interest in astronomy. When we were little, Dad had a telescope,” Kopco said.

“It wasn’t a great telescope, but you could see the moon,” said Kopco, who grew up in Johnstown, Pa.

Kopco’s passion for astronomy was reignited during an astronomy course at Juniata College, where he majored in communications and education. He was required to take a science course and chose astronomy.

The class “forced me to go out and look up,” Kopco recalled.

Students had to use a pointer to identify constellations to the professor.

After college, Kopco got a job on a therapeutic support staff working in Bedford (Pa.) Area School District. He worked one-on-one in the classroom with students who had behavior or social problems.

It was during this experience that Kopco decided he needed to go back to school to get his teaching certificate so he could do more to help students.

“I liked that look on their face whenever they get it,” Kopco said.

After earning his master’s degree in the teaching program at University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, Kopco got a job teaching science at E. Russell Hicks. He taught earth science to sixth-graders for four years and spent last year teaching a variety of science to eighth-graders.

Teaching astronomy to sixth-graders again sparked his interest in astronomy.

“Teaching them about how things worked made me want to learn more,” Kopco said.

Kopco said he began learning more about astronomy by reading books, some by Stephen Hawking; watching “Through the Wormhole” hosted by Morgan Freeman on the Science Channel; and joining TriState Astronomers earlier this year.

Kopco taught sixth-graders about rotation and revolution with a game of “Simon Says,” and taught them about the distance between the planets by taking them outside and mapping out the solar system, on a much smaller scale, using students as planets. He also took them to the planetarium.

When he learned Martin was retiring this summer, he applied for the planetarium job.

“This is, like, the best job ever,” Kopco said. “I can’t imagine a job that would be better than teaching, and teaching astronomy every day, and having all these toys to do it with.”

Information from: The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md., http://www.herald-mail.com

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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