Searching the ground for distant planets and suns only sounds backward if you haven’t taken Graham Dey’s honors research class. Its highlight is a 10-hour, four-wheel-drive trip from West Salem High School in Oregon to a place in the state’s desolate eastern deserts where rocks are covered with ancient paintings and carvings of the night sky.
Dey and his charges make the annual trip to study the petroglyphs—made at least a thousand years ago by what is now the Paiute tribe—by day and the dome of space, free of urban light pollution, by night. With the help of grants, his students now have access to high-tech equipment, including Global Positioning System devices, which help them locate ancient village sites and rock art left over from when the desert was dappled with lakes. When the light fades, they use telescopes and special cameras to take pictures of deep space galaxies, globular clusters, and nebulae.
It’s not often that students at any level, let alone those still in high school, get to combine field archaeology and astronomy, and Dey says his kids appreciate the opportunity. It’s fascinating to look at “the night sky reflected in another group from a long time ago,” Dey says—especially the depictions that may document the supernova of 1054.
Anne Marie Dougherty, a senior, recalls that examining the petroglyphs and walking through the remains of ancient settlements made her feel like a “little Indiana Jones.” “That’s the really great thing about his class—you’re learning about things you wouldn’t normally learn in your lifetime,” she says.
But the rigorous, eight-day fieldwork schedule is just part of Dey’s reason for bringing the class to the middle of nowhere. “One of my goals is just for them to bond as a group,” he says. Senior Stefanie Price reports that they did just that: “You’re really tired, you’re really dirty. You’re together all the time, and you just naturally bond with everyone.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Over and Under