by Jim Bernard, OLLI member
On a perfect New England Christmas day, an eight-year old girl finds a telescope under the tree. Not so many years later, she is the astronomer who teaches and inspires Berkeley OLLI members with her passionate pursuit of greater understanding of the universe.
Bethany Cobb is the youngest instructor to teach an OLLI course, and one of the most popular. Her Revolutions in Astronomy covers everything from the Big Bang to the latest perspectives on the dark energy which powers the accelerating expansion of the universe. Her presentation style is engaging, articulate, and clearly communicates difficult concepts to a diverse audience. Seamlessly incorporated into the flow are short videos, thought experiments, and demonstrations. Even a field trip to the telescope at Chabot Space and Science Center is on the agenda.
Bethany was born in Vermont and grew up in New Hampshire. Her parents were both academics involved in science and math, and were a strong influence in fostering these interests in Bethany. Her mother was a natural teacher, and passed these skills to her daughter. While an undergraduate at Williams College majoring in astrophysics and psychology, she played a role in introducing students to telescopes and astronomy. During these years she caught the teaching bug. She moved on to Yale University for six years and received her Ph.D.
A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for post-doctoral work, which includes funding for both research and outreach, supports her current work on gamma ray bursts at UC Berkeley. The outreach goals led to an OLLI course proposal. She enjoys teaching for the OLLI community because "they really want to be there" in the classroom. Where undergraduates are sometimes just in it for a requirement or a grade, OLLI students are there to learn. The questions flow freely and punctuate the dialogue.
Bethany sees herself as an astronomy teacher who does research. Astronomy is a history-making career, as technology advances and there are more powerful telescopes and faster computers. She anticipates the discovery of Earth-like planets, even life outside Earth, during her lifetime. While she doesn't expect Einstein to be proven wrong, you never know. That's part of the fun.