For many Albion College students, one of the most exceptional classes you take is an FYE. Dr. Nicole Zellner’s Fly Me to The Moon: 100 Years in Space is no exception.
FYE stands for First-Year Experience, a class that aims to help students transition from high school to college while fostering a sense of community in the classroom. First-years at Albion can either choose their FYE or be placed into one that best fits their schedule.
Dr. Zellner has been teaching astronomy and physics at Albion for 13 years but recently decided to try her hand at teaching a class of all first-years. She says the idea for her FYE came from her own desire to teach more about space exploration than in her other classes.
“I thought it was a perfect topic for an FYE,” said Dr. Zellner. “I’ve always wanted to teach a class like this.” Her class combines science with the untold stories of historical figures, all while helping students sharpen their writing and research skills.
A student in this FYE, Peach Norman Owen, says Dr. Zellner has gotten her more excited about science than she ever thought she could be. Originally from Cincinnati, Norman Owen is an international studies major who says science was never her favorite subject in high school. In fact, she says her initial reason for taking the class was because of the trip to Washington, D.C.
“[Dr. Zellner’s] passion for it makes me passionate about it and makes me want to learn. I think it’s my favorite class that I am taking,” said Norman Owen. “For some of us, this is as much [science] as we’re going to get. So I think [Dr. Zellner] has done a really good job of making the class well-rounded.”
Norman Owen is now doing a student research project for Dr. Zellner about women in science, based on what she learned in the FYE.
Of the 16 people in Dr. Zellner’s FYE, only eight traveled to Washington, D.C. for the trip. While in D.C., students had the opportunity to see NASA Headquarters, NASA Goddard, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of Natural History and the Arlington Cemetery.
One memorable experience for students was going behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum to look at meteorites and samples brought back from space. Some of the meteorite pieces were from the earliest formation of the solar system, making them about 4.5 billion years old. Other samples students got to touch came from the moon and from Mars.
“You could touch millions of years under one finger,” said Norman Owen.
Not every FYE has the opportunity to travel like Dr. Zellner’s. Moreover, taking a trip can be challenging for professors who have to prepare their students properly beforehand. According to Dr. Zellner, in this case, it was better to let students see and touch pieces of history without “giving away the surprise.” In other words, she didn’t want to tell them exactly what they would be learning about until they got to see it.
“I didn’t want to set any expectations,” she said. “I wanted them to realize for themselves what they were holding in their hands.”
Back at school, the FYE continues to dive into the history of space exploration in creative ways. Outside of reading books and having class discussions, students work on group projects to help them learn additional skills. A recent project included students gathering information on the Apollo missions and translating it to make it fit into a spreadsheet. As first-years, many students are often unaware of how to do proper academic research, and learning this skill right away can help not only in other classes but for the rest of their adult lives.
For students in Fly Me to The Moon: 100 Years of in Space, Dr. Zellner has definitely encouraged an interest in space. Even if this is one of the only science classes they take, students are learning lessons that are useful across all of academia: ask questions, do research and look for connections between different areas of study.
Photo courtesy of Peach Norman Owen.