A Night with the stars

“This is so tiring!” The students complain as they drag their bags through six flights of stairs to the topmost floor of the NISMED building. A week earlier, girls from the Assumption College were griping similarly, and a week from today, pupils from the Village School of Parkwoods will voice the same protests. On this particular Friday, high school students from the Bethany Montessori Learning Center are ‘camping’ overnight. It is their turn to skywatch.

After a fast-food dinner, the students gather in the dark to watch a slide presentation. The speaker shows a ‘family portrait’ of the members of the solar system. The images are cleverly drawn, showing a sense of volume, and when the students see the Earth as a mere dot compared to the Sun, they could not believe their eyes. And when the Sun, the star of our own solar system, is in turn compared to Betelgeuse, another star, there is an eruption of reactions. At the scale of the picture, Betelgeuse is perhaps the size of a basketball while the Sun is as big as a pixel.

Later on, the students are invited to use Stellarium, a planetarium software which shows what the sky will look like at any place in the world and at any time one chooses. The students are completely captivated, as the software allows them to zoom close to Jupiter and discover for themselves what Galileo himself discovered when he first looked at the giant planet through a telescope. The students are thrilled to watch a simulation of the total solar eclipse that was seen in China in July of 2009. The teachers themselves come alive when they find out that Stellarium can be downloaded from the Internet for free.

The students then troop out to the view deck and try to learn their way around the stars. They recognize the Big Dipper in the north but express surprise when told that it is not a constellation. They learn how to hop from star to star, remembering their names, using a memory aid: Follow the arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica. ‘Arc’ is the curved handle of the Big Dipper, ‘Arcturus’ is the brightest star of the constellation Bootes, and ‘Spica’ is that of Virgo.

From the view deck the students are herded into the observatory, five at a time. Too many people moving about could lead to a shaky image in the telescope. “It’s so big!” The students could not get over the size of the towering telescope beneath the dome. “What kind is it?” they ask. They learn that it’s a reflecting telescope. That instead of a lens, it uses a mirror to catch light. “Why is it so dark in here?” the students wonder as they point their flashlights at each other’s faces. They are not aware that bright light ruins the night vision needed to see dim objects.

“What are we looking at?” a student asks as she gingerly climbs onto the ladder to peer into the eyepiece. The Orion Nebula, she is told, located beneath the famous belt of the hunter in the heavens. She takes in the hazy patch of light and wonders about the stars within. She is impressed to learn that those stars were born from the nebula, that nebulas are star nurseries. The students waiting for their turn grow restless. They can’t wait to see how a nebula looks.

After more than a hundred students have looked at the nebula, the huge telescope is turned toward the loveliest planet of all. Everyone agrees that it’s beautiful. Saturn with its mysterious rings never fails to move the students. But there is always one or two who will say that “It looks like a fishball on a stick.” Others say that “It’s a trick! There’s a photo stuck up there somewhere!” They all stop talking though when they are challenged to find the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, which is bigger than the planet Mercury.

After looking at other celestial objects, the students return to the view deck. Some are already tired and are soon curled up in their sleeping bags. Others wait for shooting stars, yelling now and then—believing their wishes will come true. A small group refuses to go to sleep and clamor for more. They keep asking all sorts of questions. These lucky few will learn a little extra. They are the ones who we hope will grow into scientists who will make the world a better place.

Participants from Village School of Parkwoods observe
the moon through a refracting telescope.


Accompanied by their teachers, a total of 542 elementary and high school students participated in overnight skywatching sessions at UP NISMED from January to March, 2010. Skywatching activities were conducted by Eligio Obille Jr., John Alex Reyroso, Ivy Mejia, and members of the UP Astronomical Society.

As part of its extension work, UP NISMED regularly conducts skywatching sessions during the months of December, January, February, and sometimes March, when the skies are clear and the weather is cool. For further details and reservation, interested schools may contact NISMED at (02) 9274276 ext. 212 or (02) 9283545.



January 15

Assumption College
San Lorenzo Village
Makati City

January 29

Bethany Montessori
Learning Center
Las Piñas City

February 5

Village School of

Quezon City

February 12

St. Theresa’s College
Quezon City

February 19

Village School of
Quezon City

March 19

Balara High School
Quirino High School
Camp General Emilio
Aguinaldo High School
All in Quezon City