Two Educators' Eclipse Experiences

2024-04-19 / Diana Yoder / Eclipse

Diana's Experience: A Brewgarden in Dayton, OH

The April 8th, 2024 Eclipse from Dayton, OH.

The weeks leading up to the eclipse were filled with anxiety and the phrase, “It’ll be cool no matter what.” Spring in Ohio is not known for clear skies, but instead for overcast days filled with drizzling rain. The odds for a clear day on April 8th were never very good. As we got closer to the big day, the cloud forecasts were actually looking promising - only 40-60% cloud cover were expected. Even if the sun were lightly occluded by clouds, I knew that the day would be amazing, so I began to grow optimistic.

When I awoke on April 8th, I was greeted by a brilliant blue sky without a cloud in sight. I couldn’t be more excited. I knew there were likely going to be some clouds developing later in the day, but this was looking better than I ever dared hope for.

Diana and her Family
Diana and her Family

The night before I had packed up my car with all of my viewing equipment, so around 12pm, I headed out to my location for the afternoon: A family owned Brewgarden featuring delicious drinks, a family friendly environment, and a wide open garden to sit and relax.

I had volunteered to be the Brewgarden’s official astronomer for the day, and would be available to explain the details of the eclipse to all of the guests. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect the audience to be like. This wasn’t the same as a ticketed event at a museum or science center like I’m used to. Anyone in the area was welcome to stop by the Brewgarden, grab a drink, and check out what I was sharing.

When I arrived, there were already quite a few people camped out with drinks despite First Contact being over an hour away. Most of the guests appeared to be adults relaxing with with friends, but there were also several families. A few elementary aged kids played tag in the garden, and an infant relaxed in her stroller beneath a large umbrella.

After a few quick words with the owners, I began to set up all of my equipment. From colanders and note cards with push pins, to my 8” Dobsonian telescope, I had brought quite a few solar viewing options.

Diana's Eclipse Setup
Diana's Eclipse Setup

Shortly after I started to bring equipment out, people began approaching with questions and exclamations of excitement. From these interactions I could tell that I had a very mixed audience of amateur astronomers and science novices. I happily addressed common misconceptions, gave timelines of the day, and spoke in detail of the various instruments I brought with me. It was fantastic to engage with all of the guests while the anticipation grew as we approached 1:53pm, when the Moon would first kiss the Sun.

By First Contact, I had everything set up, including my SeeStar s50. This is an amazing little telescope built for astrophotography. Unlike my Dobsonian refracting telescope, it could automatically track the Sun and stream its image to an iPad I kept close to me all day.

As the eclipse start time approached, my eyes were glued to that iPad, waiting to see the circle of the Sun change. Right on time, I began to see a little bump appear in the lower right side of the Sun. I quickly looked up with my eclipse glasses, but couldn’t make anything out yet. The magnification of the tiny scope was already amplifying my experience.

As the bump grew, I announced to the crowd that the eclipse had started and to take out your glasses to watch the Sun. Everyone excitedly looked up and exclaimed over the tiny imperfection in our closest star.

The eclipse was here and there weren’t any clouds to speak of.

The next 65 minutes were a blur of excited guests strolling over from their drinks to take a fresh peak at the Sun and ask a few questions of me. We all shared our joy for the event and our relief at the beautiful day. It was warmer than it had been for the past few weeks: a beautiful 74 degrees with a slight breeze. Conditions couldn’t be better and all we had to do was watch the Moon do its job and slowly march across the sky.

It was absolutely fantastic to have my SeeStar showing everyone the Sun from my iPad. Even better, it was recording the whole event. However, there is a special kind of magic to look through the eyepiece of a telescope and see it yourself. I kept the Dobsonian busy all day. Aligning and re-aligning the Sun so that all of our guests could watch the Moon’s progress directly instead of through the screen.

Stages of the Total Eclipse
Stages of the Total Eclipse

I believe this really speaks to why hands-on experiences are so important. Everyone in the world could have simply stayed at home and watched a live-stream from NASA. Instead, millions of people set up camp outside in rain or shine, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Sun. Similarly, it was amazing to see the eclipse on my iPad, streamed just from that tiny scope a few feet from me. But it wasn’t the same as putting your face to the eyepiece of a telescope.

Not everything can be taught in the field. But the closer we get to real experiences, the better we are for it. The more hands-on and the more interactive our experiences are, the more we learn and value. That is one of the reasons I love planetariums so much. While I adore spending an evening outside among the stars, that’s not possible for everyone. And it’s certainly not possible every night.

The immersive environment of a planetarium can do a wonderful job simulating what we aren’t capable of experiencing ourselves. It’s so much better than simply looking at a flat image on a screen. Of course, all forms of education are important and everyone learns in different ways. n my experience, however, the planetarium environment has a special way of getting as close as possible to real world exposure. It also has the added benefit of being able to simulate things we could never dream of experiencing for ourselves, like flying through a planetary nebula to see the white dwarf in the center.

In the months leading up to April 8th, 2024, I can’t count the number of times I simulated the eclipse in a planetarium. I was able to match the exact latitudes and longitudes of my guests and show them exactly how the sky would appear on the big day. This prepared them by explaining what to look for, like planets appearing in the sky, or how long the event would take.

As totality approached, I stopped fiddling with the Dobsonian and encouraged everyone to simply observe the world around them. We had our eclipse glasses to watch the sliver of Sun disappear and our senses to experience the worldly effects around us.

Just as promised, it got colder, the wind picked up, the lighting became eerie and overcast, birds roosted, crickets chirped, and we even saw a few bats come out!

As the last sliver of light disappeared, I shouted to the crowd that we had reached totality. Everyone took off their glasses and marveled at the beautiful corona before us.

I don’t have the words to describe how wonderful totality is. This was my second time in totality and it was once again a truly singular experience. (Ironic, I know.)

I’m not going to try to explain what it feels like, but I will say that if you ever have the opportunity to reach totality, please take it. You won’t regret it.

As totality ended and the Sun began to reappear, you could tell that everyone in the crowd was on an adrenaline high. We were amped up about the experience, but quickly decompressing and releasing all of that anxious energy and anticipation.

Unlike my experience in 2017 when everyone around me ran to their cars after totality, the crowd sat back down and soaked in the experience. We relaxed with our drinks, talked about our favorite parts (the solar prominence and 360 sunset came up quite a bit!), and simply enjoyed the time we had spent together. Occasionally, people would come back to the telescopes to check on the Sun, but the magic of the dance had left with the solar corona.

The next hour saw people slowly trickling out to cool off or go get some food. The bright sunny day had worn people out. Most of us haven’t seen that much sunlight in quite a while, and there was more than one sunburn leaving the garden that day.

I’ve now had time to relax and reflect on my experience, and I am so glad I volunteered to share the sky with people that day. As an educator and a lover of science, my experience of the Solar Eclipse was enhanced by sharing my knowledge and my equipment with the people around me. I was able to make the day a bit better, and a bit more educational, for every person there. That’s what I love to do.

Kat's Eclipse Experience: Texas Eclipse Festival

Seeing an eclipse with my own two eyes has been a seven-year journey. When the last North American Eclipse happened in 2017, I was in my first year working in a planetarium and only 250 miles from the path of totality. Despite the proximity, a combination of exhaustion from educating thousands of people about the eclipse, coupled with a daughter yet too young to comfortably endure the trip, motivated me to enjoy 99% coverage with her and her kinder class.

In 2019, some colleagues had the radically wonderful idea to plan a group trip to Argentina for a Southern hemisphere eclipse in December 2020, mere days before my birthday. Sadly, bigger world events blocked me and all my comrades from achieving this experience. 2024 was my next best chance, and one I had pledged on a radio station interview from 2017 to include my daughter in.

Now thirteen, my daughter loves music much more than space. Fortunately for us both, I love music as much as I love space, so we still get along quite well. Further, unlike 2017, when I was the friendly neighborhood planetarian in ground zero for this cosmic coincidence, I live nowhere near this most recent path.

So what do a professional space nerd and a teenage audiophile do for fun during an eclipse trip? They go to an eclipse music festival of course!

Festival Stage
Credit: R. Evan Price

The journey to Texas from South Carolina was lengthy and eventful, combined with some logistic snafus with the festival. However, by Saturday afternoon we were camped on a dusty but beautiful ranch in Burnet, Texas, enjoying the vibes, hoping for good weather, and gearing up for the last North American Eclipse for the next two decades.

Kat's Daughter at the Festival
Kat's Daughter at the Festival
Eclipse Glasses
Eclipse Vibes

The trip took a dramatic pivot on the morning of eclipse day. I woke up relatively early compared to many attendees, who had been dancing the night away to acts that went far into the early morning hours. My daughter and I walked into the quiet venue for a morning kids activity. We were met instead by announcements of a weather related cancellation of the entire day’s festivities. Campers were encouraged to return promptly to camp and begin packing up. Because of my early rising and our prompt action, we were able to leave site very quickly, leaving ahead of over 40,000 people all trying to depart camp. This caused a news worthy gridlock in Burnet hours later.

But what about the eclipse?! After squeaking out of camp at around 11:00 am, we hit the road in search of the best skies we could find in a cloud scattered southeastern Texas. We drove as far up the band of totality as we could before 1:00 pm, literally chasing the eclipse, or rather outrunning the clouds.

Totality was at approximately 1:37pm for our area. We ultimately landed on a desolate stretch of highway outside Gatesville, Texas, surrounded by wildflowers. While there were light patches of clouds, they were not enough to obstruct our view. I broke down at the sight.

One of my biggest goals for the day was to get some footage to share in the dome. While the erratic nature of our trip created less than ideal filming conditions, I still managed to get some personal shots to add to the collage of images and videos coming in from the community. What's special about my shots is not their quality, but their context. The images are truly mine and connected to an epic tale I can retell in the dome for years to come. One of the beauties of planetarium life is reliving moments and sharing experiences that might otherwise be out of reach for others.

After seven years of planning in some form or fashion, and close to a week of tenuous traveling, marathon walking, and ecstatic dancing, the moment was both beautiful and cathartic. A true adventure of a lifetime.

About the Author

Diana is one of Digitalis’ newest Education Specialists. She resides in Ohio and loves exploring the universe through her Digitarium SkyBox.

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