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With Stars As Their Guides

Class teaches century-old navigation techniques

By Victoria Kim, Contributing Writer

“Never be lost again!”

The 107-year-old astronomy class “Celestial Navigation” has an unusual offer to make to students who come across it in the department’s course listings.

The eccentric class, which helps students “find [their] way on sea, land, or air by employing celestial and terrestrial techniques,” has been taught in the same form throughout its century-long history, said Phillip M. Sadler, the Frances W. Wright Lecturer on Celestial Navigation.

Sadler, who has been teaching the class for 14 years, said the 15 to 35 students who typically enroll are enthusiastic about the content and the “hands-on” methodology of the class. “The class has been so popular for so long,” he said.

It has been so popular that it now has its own endowment, created by the donation of a previous lecturer and various alums, who “decided the course should continue forever,” Sadler said. Frances W. Wright, who taught Celestial Navigation for about 20 years, left money to be used specifically for the class when she passed away in 1989.

The course is fully supported by the endowment, and “will be continued for quite a while,” according to Peggy Herlihy, the department administrator for the astronomy department.

The endowment funds field trips and equipment such as the sextant that each student gets to keep in his or her dorm.

Celestial navigation “might actually be one of the most useful things I learn at Harvard,” said Sarah E. Kleinschmidt ’05, a biology concentrator who is taking the class this semester after friends who graduated last year recommended it. She said the class is fun because it involves learning an actual skill and not the history or theory of it.

“We actually looked at the stars or the sun to chart our course across a fake ocean chart using drawing tools,” she said.

R. Linden Wooderson ’07, who enrolled in the class because of its high CUE guide rating of 4.8, called it “the best academic experience I’ve had so far.”

“I would now be able to walk out of a T stop, figure out which way is north, and actually have an idea of where I am,” he said.

he class meets for five hours on Tuesdays, two hours in the morning and three in the evening. The sessions consist of brief lectures but mostly of labs. In the week between classes, students are required to keep a journal and conduct observations of stars on their own, said Joseph M. Depasquale, the head teaching fellow.

“The workload is comparable to any other class,” said Kleinschmidt, asserting that it’s “definitely not a slacker class.”

“I spend an average of four to five hours outside of class, doing problem sets and assignments which involves actually going outside and walking around, but it’s worth it,” she said.

Although the course is labeled Astronomy 2, it carries no credit within the Astronomy and Astrophysics concentration.

But Depasquale said many students get the opportunity to use their navigational skills with family members while sailing or hiking.

“I’ve heard that some students who took the class before World War II were able to use a lot of what they learned in the Navy,” he added.

“Navigation and mapping are problems every civilization had to face, and in looking into the various methods they used, we can look back into the development of science and technology in each civilization,” Sadler said.

Last night, the class met inside a inflatable planetarium, invented by Sadler himself, in which they observed stars, constellations and celestial coordinates.

“It’s rather like kindergarten, where you actually get to do things and ask as many questions as you want,” said Yi Liu ’05.

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