Retired NMH teacher wins school award for astronomy program success

  • The NMH Alumni Association recently awarded retired teacher Hughes Pack with the William H. Morrow Award, which honors non-alumni who have had significant impacts on life at Northfield Mount Hermon School. Pack not only established the school’s astronomy program, but developed it to a point that his students were able to make an original scientific discovery. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • The NMH Alumni Association recently awarded retired teacher Hughes Pack with the William H. Morrow Award, which honors non-alumni who have had significant impacts on life at Northfield Mount Hermon School. Pack not only established the school’s astronomy program, but developed it to a point that his students were able to make an original scientific discovery. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2020 11:35:39 AM

GILL — In the course of a 37-year teaching career at Northfield Mount Hermon School, Hughes Pack not only established the school’s astronomy program, but developed it to a point that his students were able to make an original scientific discovery.

Pack retired in 2015. This summer, the NMH Alumni Association awarded him with the William H. Morrow Award, which honors non-alumni who have had significant impacts on life at NMH.

Pack started teaching at NMH in 1978, after four years of teaching physics at Stoneleigh-Burnham School while working on a master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

When he arrived, NMH didn’t have any sort of astronomy program. That came nine years later, in 1987, after he attended a summer workshop in Cambridge for science teachers. Pack signed up to participate in a trial run of in-development teaching material, which included an astronomy curriculum.

Back at NMH, Pack would load a few simple telescopes into his car each night, then drive them to a quiet spot on campus where he would meet with his students to teach.

Although the school administration was originally hesitant to invest heavily in a new program, he said, students were obviously interested, and the classes quickly became popular.

“They absolutely loved it,” Pack recalled. “The first time a kid looks through a telescope and sees Saturn, they literally cannot believe it, and say, ‘Nah, that’s painted on the end of the telescope.’”

In 1991, Pack traveled to California to work with astrophysicists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who were developing a new astronomy course. He credits that experience and the professional connections he made there with advancing his own teaching to a higher level.

NMH eventually found a better spot for an observation point, and built a platform for a telescope and a small building to store equipment. By the late 1990s, it was built up to an observatory with a roll-off roof, and a heated inner room with controls to use the telescopes in cold weather.

Using his relationships in the professional scientific community from a few years back, Pack arranged for his students to borrow current data and maps developed by professional astronomy labs.

The idea was, he said, large research labs don’t have the time to seek out and identify minor celestial objects; they’re only interested in major findings. High schools students, if they have access to current data, can learn how to make real discoveries by picking out the things that professional labs won’t bother with.

“We could mine the solar system for gold,” he said.

As it turned out, the maps Pack was using were several months old. So by the time he and his students would identify an object, it would have already moved far enough that third party peer reviewers usually weren’t able to prove the finding, he said.

In one case, however, in October of 1998, NMH students identified something orbiting near Pluto that made it into the scientific record, called the 73rd Kuiper Belt Object. Because it was so far away, it had moved so little by the time it was reviewed that it could still be verified. The discovery was formally credited to NMH.

“That was a huge deal, for high school students to actually do real science,” Pack said. “Several professional astronomers were quite ticked off that high school students had done this, because it would have been a feather in the cap of their college or university to have done that.”

According to a 1998 article in Education Week, the other 72 Kuiper Belt Objects were all discovered by professional astronomers.

Whether Pack’s former students who nominated him for the William H. Morrow Award fully understood his role in establishing and developing NMH’s astronomy program, they certainly seemed to appreciate the enthusiasm and effort that he put into his classes, he said.

“My goal in class was, these kids are going to come into class, hopefully looking forward to it, and they’re going to leave class feeling better than when they came in, and having had a good time learning science,” he said. “It was rewarding because they loved it and they appreciated it and they learned.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.


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