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The Professor Behind StarWatch: Gary A. Becker

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Among the massive number of emails that Moravian students receive on a weekly basis, there is one that stands out: the announcement for StarWatch. The crafter of these celestial-themed articles is Gary A. Becker, an adjunct professor of astronomy, who has been teaching at Moravian College for 7 years.

Becker’s passion for space was born when he was only 8 years old and witnessed a shooting star on his way to a Cub Scout meeting. He then became an expert on all things astronomy and was a go-to source on facts about the planets in his third grade class. After becoming a member of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society when he was 16, Becker went to work on producing his first telescope.

“I wanted a telescope, but my allowance was only a half-dollar a week, so for my sixteenth birthday my parents bought me a telescope mirror grinding kit and I went to work,” said Becker in a recent interview. “It took a year and a half to just get the mirror setup.”

Becker’s dedication to astronomical discoveries continued when he enrolled at Kutztown University to study Earth and Space Science. Although his father was a teacher, Becker had apprehensions about going into astronomy education.“I chose Earth and Space Science because I feared that if I taught my hobby [astronomy] I might get tired of it,” he explained.

When Becker began his second teaching practicum at Northampton Area School District his perception about teaching astronomy changed. The school contained a planetarium, which   sparked Becker’s desire to share his knowledge about the stars with others. “When I got my hands on a planetarium and started teaching astronomy I realized that was what I really wanted to do,” said Becker. “But planetariums are difficult to come by.”

After graduating, in 1972 he got a job in the Allentown School District and served as a both a teacher and Director of the Planetarium. In 1993, the school board threatened to close the planetarium to save money, forcing Becker to fight for his passion. The board eventually decided to keep the planetarium operational on the condition that Becker raise the money to maintain it. “Nobody thought I could do it, but in one week I raised $8,000 and became financially independent of the Allentown School District,” recalled Becker.  “I could make my own decisions as to what I wanted to spend and buy.” During the next 17 years, before his retirement in 2010, Becker raised $170,000 to keep the stars shining for children of Allentown.

After teaching for 38 years in Allentown, Becker was presented with a new teaching opportunity, which he attributes to taking a class on volcanoes in Hawaii. There he got to know Dr. Joseph Gerencher, a former member of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at Moravian College. This interaction among many others prompted Gerencher to recommend Becker as the replacement to teach his astronomy class after when he retired in 2010.

“I have told every class that of all of the colleges it was Moravian that I really wanted to teach at. It wasn’t Lehigh University; it wasn’t my alma mater, Kutztown, or West Chester. I wanted to teach at this school,” said Becker. “And the serendipity is that I wasn’t even thinking of ever having the opportunity, but the cards just fell into place.”

Since Becker first started at Moravian, his evening astronomy lab course (EASC-130) has gone from being offered just once a year to four times a year. Becker’s passion and love for his subject extends into his lessons and greatly impacts his students. “My philosophy of education is that the learning environment should be a fun and an enjoyable experience for students,” he said. “This does not mean giving into my students, but it does mean listening to my students and hearing what they have to say [in order] to improve instruction techniques and relax their angst about science.”

Becker’s teaching extends from the classroom and into the college community with his distribution of the weekly StarWatch emails. His column began when the Morning Call contacted the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society seeking an individual to write a weekly article for the newspaper. Becker volunteered and for 21 years has been producing the content for an array of mediums, including Accessweather.com.

From describing the arrangement of the planets to reporting on recent astronomical developments — including Moravian’s robotic observatory buy-in — and writing Sci-Fi movie reviews, as well, Becker covers a range of topics. The production of the emails would not happen without the help of his wife, Susan,  a retired English teacher and prolific reader who helps to edit the articles for reader entertainment. Becker jokingly described how the development of his writing affected his relationship. “Virtually the only arguments we ever had while dating were about semicolons, dashes, commas, and capitalization,” he said.

The StarWatch articles have been distributed to the College community for four years, helping to not only enrich the minds of readers but serve as a testament to Becker’s passion for space and teaching.

“I have often said that the best way to die would be by running up the stairs excited to show my students the nighttime sky from the sky deck on top of Collier and just keeling over of a heart attack,”  Becker quipped.

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