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Student Achievement Ariel Cochran November 21, 2023

Headshot of Michelle Wooten, Ph.D.Michelle Wooten, Ph.D.You could say that the stars aligned just right for the Astronomy Club at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Open to all majors, the club was approved in January 2023, and Michelle Wooten, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Physics, serves as the faculty advisor.

Astronomy is Wooten’s passion. Her love for the stars and the great beyond stemmed from a deep sense of wonder she first experienced at the age of 13.

“I was walking home from a friend’s house and looked at the sky and was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot I don’t know. We’re a small place in this magnificent universe,’” Wooten explained. From there, her curiosity progressed into joining her local astronomy club, receiving her Master’s in Physics and Ph.D. in Education Research Methodologies, and teaching astronomy at five universities across the U.S. before arriving at UAB.

“After a year and a half [here at UAB], I decided to see if students wanted to form an astronomy club,” Wooten said. “My goal for the club was to give physics undergraduates another space to meet, not just with each other, but with people across the campus and to have a place for a healthy social connection, where you’re not being evaluated or you’re only good as your grade.”

She sent an email to the Department of Physics undergraduates, inquiring if anyone would be interested in forming a group.

“What if students wanted to develop their passion for astronomy outside of a formal context of coursework?” Wooten asked. At the time, the only opportunities for students to engage in the subject were 100-level courses for non-science majors and/or by participating in local astronomical societies.

“I wanted to create a space where students could be around people like them and explore astronomy,” Wooten said.

Within a day, students responded to her email and began to sign up for the group, one of them being Trent Culverhouse, a senior majoring in physics and minoring in mathematics.

“The astronomy club was brought to my attention by Dr. Wooten,” Culverhouse said. “Five of us replied to the email and that’s when we began planning different events and registering [them] on Engage. Without [Dr.Wooten] we would not have started.”

Trent Culverhouse, senior majoring in physics and minoring in mathematicsTrent Culverhouse, senior majoring in physics and minoring in mathematicsCulverhouse serves as president of the Astronomy Club at UAB and leads monthly meetings. The meetings consist of event planning, astronomy activities—including a space-themed Dungeons and Dragons campaign—and service projects such as teaching local grade school students how to use a telescope and identify objects in the night sky. The club also participates regularly in public observatory nights at the James Wylie Shepherd Observatory at the University of Montevallo campus and hosts occasional moon viewings.

“We actually have a lot of astronomy and astrophysics interests inside the physics department,” Culverhouse said. “That also helped get [the club] off the ground and running.”

Recently, the club hosted a planetarium show called “Not Comets: Deep Space Objects of Our Universe” at the Samford University Christenberry Planetarium. Club members took guests on a “journey” through space to view Messier Objects, astronomical objects identified by French astronomist Charles Messier.

“You could actually ‘fly’ toward the objects and see what [they] look like up close,” Wooten explained.

According to Culverhouse, it took the group weeks to prepare the presentation, and they got to host it during “Messier Marathon Week,” a period where astronomers try to find as many Messier Objects as they can in one night.

“The [club] shared the role of presenting. Everybody I talked to who saw the show just loved it,” Wooten said.

“I love all things science,” Culverhouse said. “I always have and always will. Talking to other people about these topics, specifically about astronomy, has been great and seeing people’s reactions to our planetarium show was fantastic.”

Now at 25 members, the Astronomy Club continues their meetings, outreach, and events.

“We just want to share what we love about science. We’re super laid-back, and it’s just been so fun to meet with everybody and share this love for science and astronomy,” Culverhouse said.

To learn more about the Astronomy Club at UAB, you can follow them on social media at @uabstronomyclub on Instagram and join the group through their Engage page.

Photo of the Astronomy Club wearing solar eclipse glasses


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