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Region's mountains help stir the wonder in astronomer that he hopes to create in youth
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Region's mountains help stir the wonder in astronomer that he hopes to create in youth

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Matt Fleenor

Matt Fleenor, an astronomer and Roanoke College educator teaching physics and astronomy, has written a children’s book to encourage youngsters and adults to look up with both knowledge and wonder. Here he’s enjoying time on the Appalachian Trail just north of Roanoke.

Matt Fleenor didn’t peer through a telescope into the night sky until he was 28 years old. He now works to encourage today’s youngsters and future generations to turn their gaze upward much sooner.

The associate professor at Roanoke College loved playing and exploring in nature as a child. Then, his attention shifted to the physical sciences as he pursued an undergraduate degree in engineering, but he credits high school students for sparking the passion that he now experiences for the natural world.

Fleenor began his career in education teaching high school chemistry and physics. One day, a student asked him a question about the Big Bang, “about the origin and the fate of the universe.”

The query “really took me out of myself, because it stressed the current size of my question box. I remember directly after class, going to read and search for answers to such questions.”

His inquisitive nature took over. “I began to ask bigger questions, questions that my current (at that time) educational level could not answer,” Fleenor said.

As a human enterprise, the educator reflected, “Science… is always wondering ‘Why?,’ which drives us further and deeper in our questioning.”

Fleenor knew he would need to return to school to get the answers he sought and be “able to answer questions about the origin and future of the observable universe.”

The man who grew up in the Tri-Cities with family roots in Mendota earned a Master of Science in Applied Physics from the University of Massachusetts in Boston and a doctorate in physics and astronomy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The extra time studying inspired more questions.

“I love to learn; there is an excitement when something makes sense,” said Fleenor, who now lives in Salem.

Fleenor strives to model the perpetual student when he comes into a classroom. “My model for exemplar teaching is to be the best student in the room – the one who is most interested in the subject material, the one who is most excited, and the most curious, but also the most prepared and the most informed. I saw teaching as a mode for continuing to learn. It is not truly a selfish venture because I get caught up in the lives of other aspiring-learners. I want them to be better students than I.”

Fleenor admits that excitement comes easily to him. “I hope that the excitement is infectious,” he said.

Students’ enthusiasm then fuels the cycle. “I live vicariously through the excitement of others,” he said. “I get excited about the excitement of my students.” 

His teaching style apparently works. Fleenor was a 2012 nominee for Roanoke College’s Excellence in Teaching Award.

A particular class sparked another idea in Fleenor, who is also the father of three. Each year, he teaches an astronomy course for non-science majors.

“Every year I have at least one student who hasn’t seen the moon through a telescope,” explained Fleenor, “or doesn’t know what the ‘summer triangle’ is, or how to find Polaris. It is easy to absorb the wonder that students feel when these discoveries are first made and realized.”

The idea for a children’s book was born. “I want our future generations to be filled with ‘wow’ about the night sky, our sun-star, and the big universe in which we live. As I spend a lot of time with college students who will one day be parents, teachers, and future decision makers, I want to give them something to help share the wonder of astronomy.”

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Late last year, “Blue Star, New Star” was published. While geared for emerging readers ages 4 to 8 years old, Fleenor hopes it will educate learners of all ages. Through verses written to be easy to remember and prose, the book offers an introduction to astronomy.

“Scientific literacy for the public is sorely needed, and astronomy is a great way to increase the interest in science. Beginning with younger generations is the only way to address the need for future scientists and informed citizens,” Fleenor explained in a press release. “I have shown actual images with simplistic drawings in hopes of letting the astronomy ‘speak for itself.’”

In developing the book, Fleenor worked to bring his knowledge of astronomy, education and parenting together, creating a read that offers scientific knowledge along with wonder and passion.

The author knows that not all questions are seeking facts. “Science,” he said, “answers ‘how’ but philosophy, metaphysics, and even theology ask ‘why’ questions. Both ‘how’ and ‘why’ are valid questions, and the disciplines that ask those questions… are also equally valid.” 

“Since modern science began with Galileo,” Fleenor said, “humanity has been trying to connect the ‘how’ (science) and the ‘why’ (philosophy/theology). I have benefited greatly from both of these valid ways of knowing.”

In his work, Fleenor said he’s seeking connection, asking: “How do we integrate these ways of knowing into one mind, one body, one life?”

“My goal as an educator is to develop a posture of continuing curiosity,” the professor said. “I want to develop lifetime learners. This is not just within the confines of the classroom, as a formal student, but extending beyond. By leaning into curiosity, we realize that we are part of a community, that we need others, that we are not self-sufficient.”

Fleenor knows that sometimes it’s hard for parents to handle all the questions that children direct their way.

He said, “I try to embrace the questions of others. I do not expect myself to ‘know’ all the answers…. This attitude really frees me up to enjoy and get excited about others’ questions.”   

Fleenor encourages other parents to do the same. “Let’s not expect ourselves to know all the answers to our children’s questions.  Let’s model good curiosity and discovery, by saying, ‘That’s a great question; let’s see if we can find an answer. Sometimes, we forget as parents that we’re also modeling for our children. And then, we all really need to absorb the child-like wonder that our kids so often display.”

He continued, “Rather than trying to squelch the joy of curiosity with ‘certainty,’ it would do us all good to remember the joy of tasting a particular food for the first time, or seeing a rainbow, or a double-rainbow, for the first time. Can we see in our kids the joy that we may have lost?”

“Blue Star, New Star” is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and other booksellers. Learn more about the author at: http://mattfleenor.com

Stargazing at Hungry Mother State Park

The mountains of Southwest Virginia provide fuel for Matt Fleenor’s sense of wonder. An avid hiker, he loves to visit the Grayson Highlands area, the Appalachian Trail and Hungry Mother State Park. While these areas offer wonderful hiking, they also present opportunities for stargazing.

According to Tanya Hall, chief ranger for visitor experience at Hungry Mother State Park, the park staff has been working to reduce light pollution. While the park isn’t completely dark, Hall said it offers several good night sky viewing spots. She particularly recommended the Hemlock Haven ballfields, the top of the dam, the beach front, and on top of the hill across from the Raider's Run parking lot, which can be accessed via a somewhat weedy trail near an old gate.

In this time of physical distancing, Hungry Mother offers a self-directed guide to stargazing. The guide is updated every few months to feature constellations that are in prime viewing locations.

The January/February “Stargazing in the Park” guide, which can be picked up at the Discovery Center from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily, offers details about Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Canis Major, and Gemini.

The guide also notes several Stargazing Smart Phone Apps that may be useful: Star Walk 2, Night Sky, Star Tracker, and Sky Map.

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