Teaching at a Small Liberal Arts College

Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Chris De Pree, ’88, teaches physics and astronomy at Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Decatur, Georgia. He also co-authors books on astronomy for the general public and does research involving massive star formation using data from the VLA (Very Large Array) radio observatory in New Mexico. After earning his undergraduate degree in physics from Duke, De Pree taught high school for several years. “I really loved teaching,” he says, “and for awhile I thought I would keep going with teaching high school physics, but I had this nagging feeling I wanted to understand physics better than I did as an undergraduate.” He earned his PhD in astronomy at UNC, and soon after began teaching at Agnes Scott, where he is now a full professor. “It’s ideal for me,” he says. “Being at a liberal arts college, I’ve had the opportunity to teach the kinds of classes I wouldn’t be able to at a big research institute.” For example, he and a colleague from Columbia Seminary team-taught a class on the end of the world in science and religion. “Mark is a Christian ethicist, so he discusses apocalyptic literature in the Bible and the concept of apocalypse and revelation, and I discuss astronomy end-of-the-world scenarios,” he says. “Neither one of us sees science and religion in opposition but neither do we see them as the same thing.”
The two are now planning a book on the topic, which seems to generate a great deal of interest among students and the general public. De Pree has already co-written four books for popular audiences about astronomy, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Astronomy (in its 4th edition). De Pree enjoys educating the public in other ways as well—he frequently leads tours of the Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott, both for adults and for schoolchildren. And last year, he worked on three projects associated with the International Year of Astronomy, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope. One of the projects was a scale model of the solar system, which is a permanent installation. It begins with Mercury on the Agnes Scott campus, passes through Atlanta (Uranus is at the airport), and ends with Neptune in Sweetwater Creek Park nearly 20 miles west of Agnes Scott. The other two Astronomy Year projects were an exhibition of photographs at the Atlanta airport called “From Earth to the Universe,” and a traveling tactile exhibit designed for people with visual impairments based on the same images. “From Earth to the Universe” got the attention of science writer John Tierney of the New York Times, which led to three or four astronomy quizzes in the New York Times. Now that the International Year of Astronomy is over, De Pree is refocusing on his research, which involves massive star formation in high-density regions. As a graduate student, De Pree collected data at the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, studying two very high mass regions near the galactic center. Since then, he has continued to collaborate on research projects concerning those high-density regions in which massive star formation occurs. “We’re interested in trying to use both the morphology of the region and the kinematics of the ionized gas, which you can get at through radio signals, to examine the environment of ultracompact (very small, high density regions) of ionized gas,” he says. Now he is writing a proposal to get some time on the new-and-improved VLA, which is called the Expanded Very Large Array. EVLA can do higher-resolution spectroscopy than the VLA, and he’d like to go back and look in more detail at some of the regions he studied previously, located near the Galactic center. Before enrolling at Duke, De Pree spent his childhood in Hong Kong, New York City, and San Francisco. After his peripatetic childhood, De Pree is enjoying his settled life in Decatur, where he has been since 1996. “I’m happy to stay put,” he says. “It’s fun for me to realize that my teenagers are in school with kids they’ve known their whole lives.”