ORAU grant helps MC, local residents prepare for solar eclipse

ORAU grant helps MC, local residents prepare for solar eclipse

July 17, 2017

With a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse expected to cross parts of East Tennessee on Aug. 21, Irene Guerinot wants everyone in its path to understand, appreciate and enjoy the natural phenomenon.

Guerinot, a lecturer in physics at Maryville College, experienced a solar eclipse in Africa when she was a child and has never forgotten it. Now, with grant funding from Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), she hopes to help other children make similar memories, love science and maybe even chase other eclipses.

“With a total solar eclipse, you have an amazing, amazing feeling,” she said. “The thought you have immediately when it’s over is: ‘When is the next one, and how can I find the money to travel to see it?’”

A total eclipse of the sun occurs when the moon gets between the sun and the Earth, obscuring the image of the sun for a viewer on Earth. While a total solar eclipse is visible from some place on the Earth’s surface every 18 months, its path varies greatly. The last time a solar eclipse crossed the width of the United States was June 8, 1918, but that eclipse path did not include Tennessee.

The 2017 solar eclipse not only includes Tennessee, but has Maryville in the path of totality, meaning that observers will see the moon completely cover the sun for about two minutes. In Maryville, that time is expected to be about 2:30 p.m. If the sky is cloudless, people will see a nighttime sky except for a ring of light (the sun’s corona) around the silhouetted moon.

The entire solar eclipse is expected to begin around 1 p.m. and conclude at about 4 p.m.

Guerinot’s ORAU grant is providing funding for her and three Maryville College students (Cameron Moore ’20, Sydelle Young ’20 and Kathleen Staller ’18) to prepare presentations, laboratory experiments and related activities for local elementary and middle school students and teachers. In addition to visits to local schools, Guerinot and her students have scheduled presentations at the Blount County Public Library (Aug. 9), the Martin Luther King Center in Alcoa (Aug. 14) and Maryville College (Aug. 15; see details below). They will man an informational booth at the Maryville Farmers Market on Aug. 12 and 19.

“This is an amazing opportunity for public engagement and public outreach,” Guerinot said.

The ORAU grant also is paying for several hundred pairs of special eyeglasses needed to safely view the eclipse and for sensors that MC students will use to record wind speed and direction, light, noise and pressure on Aug. 21, as well as on the days leading up to the eclipse.

(Berea College has received a separate ORAU grant to cover travel expenses to MC’s campus on Aug. 21. Approximately 20 students from the Kentucky school are expected to make the trip.)

“The temperature is expected to drop by about 10 degrees during the eclipse,” Guerinot said, adding that wildlife will begin preparing for sleep or their nocturnal activities.

Guerinot and her students will provide their ground-level data to scientists at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., who are collecting similar data from elevated balloons. Through this partnership, MC will become part of NASA’s research. The Maryville College group also will share its findings at the Appalachian College Association’s 2017 Fall Summit and at the 2018 American Association of Physics Teachers annual meeting.

“We learn so much by watching eclipses,” Guerinot said. “We have learned more about the elements from eclipses. It is from a solar eclipse that we figured out that helium exists.

“I’m excited for young people to experience physics in nature,” she added. “Usually, we see the biology in nature, but not all of us are able to see the physics in nature.  It’s there, we just don’t make the connections.”

Guerinot said she also is excited about the potential boost in the country’s interest and confidence in science as a result of the solar eclipse. Similar to the increase of students studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) during the Space Race of the mid 20th century, the solar eclipse may encourage more young people to consider STEM fields, she said.

“When we went to space, we didn’t always beat the Soviets, but in some things, we did – it was a competition – and it was the cool thing to do. With the eclipse, I think we have a cool factor. This is cool.”

solar eclipse diagram

Presentation at MC planned for Aug. 15

At Maryville College, Guerinot and the MC students will give a free public presentation at 6 p.m., Tues., Aug. 15, in the Harold and Jean Lambert Recital Hall of the Clayton Center for the Arts. Expected to last an hour and include time for questions, the presentation will cover what people can expect to see on Aug. 21 and how they can view the eclipse safely; the scientific and historic significance of solar and lunar eclipses; how eclipses have been shown in art and literature; and what reliable resources exist for more information.

Dr. David Tolliver, a retired physicist who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in optical sciences, will assist with the presentation.

Blount County Eye Center will provide free eclipse eyeglasses to attendees.

For more information, contact Guerinot at 865.981.8271 or irene.guerinot@maryvillecollege.edu.

By Karen Beaty Eldridge '94, Executive Director for Marketing & Communications


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2017 semester is 1,181.