Larsen's classes a bright spot for many at Central

Sarah Elaine Kaufman

“You’re in for a real treat! This is going to be so good,” said Kathleen Wall, as Central Connecticut State University Professor Kristine Larsen set up for a recent presentation.

Larsen was speaking to a group as part of Central’s Scholars for Life Continuing Education program. A professor of Geological Sciences, Larsen is the faculty member with oversight of the Copernican Planetarium. Her topic this evening: solar eclipses.

“They’re addictive,” Larsen said of total solar eclipses. “Once you’ve seen one, you will move heaven and earth. You will drain your bank account to see another one. No picture can even do the tiniest bit of justice.”

Larsen told the audience she travelled to Egypt in 2006 to see her first total solar eclipse as part of a tour group. On her way to Cairo, she started what became a tradition by bringing a plush Velveteen rabbit with her that she named BB.

“I lugged over BB partially because he’s soft and squishy and makes for a great pillow on an airplane,” she said, adding that BB is a hit in her talks with young children. “Children really pay attention when you have a stuffy. You really want children paying attention when you’re talk about safety around an eclipse.”

In Egypt, Larsen started another tradition when she bought a keffiyeh, a men’s Egyptian headdress, for BB. Ever since then, she buys a head covering for BB at each eclipse viewing she attends.

“The thing about a good luck charm, if it works once, you don’t want to mess with it,” she said, adding that the bunny has been with her at each of the five eclipse viewings she attended. Each time, even when the weather looked like viewing would be impossible, there would be a window, maybe only 10 seconds, but she would at least part of the eclipse.

In addition to the spectacle of seeing the shadow of the moon pass over and nearly block out the sun, Larsen said another aspect of what makes a total solar eclipse a transformative experience is how it impacts the environment.

“Think about the evening at twilight,” she said. “The darkness is 360 degrees around you. The animals don’t know how to behave. The weather changes. You’ve got the camaraderie of the people around you. It’s an immersive experience.”

Following the presentation, Larsen took questions from the audience. One person asked why people are told not to look directly at a solar eclipse without proper eye protection.

“It will burn a permanent hole in your retina,” she explained. “You do not have pain sensors in your retina. So, if you are looking at an eclipse without eclipse glasses, the damage can be done. If there no pain sensors in your retina, how do you know the damage is being done?”

She also advised that 3-D and sunglasses are not eclipse glasses.

Following the presentation, Wall said she thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Larsen’s talk.

“I though it very entertaining. She’s just the best,” Wall said. “That was really interesting, but she has a way of making everything interesting.”

To Wall, who serves as Central’s Travelers EDGE program manager and deep learning coach, and others on campus, it was no surprise that Larsen was named a Connecticut State University (CSU) Professor earlier this year. The honor was bestowed on her by the Board of Regents of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. The award is prestigious, as only three professors at each of the state’s four-year colleges can hold the title. Faculty chosen for this award demonstrate excellence in teaching, a record of outstanding scholarship, and service to the university community.

Larsen earned her Bachelor of Arts in Physics from Central in 1985. She earned her master’s degree in Physics from the University of Connecticut in 1987 and completed doctoral studies in Physics at UConn. She has been on the Central faculty since 1989 and retains the title of CSU Professor for the duration of her service to the university.

Incoming Central sophomore Alexis Agyei believes Larsen deserves every accolade possible.

“I personally haven't had a more passionate teacher. You can tell the minute you sit in her classroom that you're being set up for success,” Agyei said. “In the classroom, she brings creativity, fun, openness, and makes learning overall enjoyable.”

Incoming Central senior Arthur Bell said Dr. Larsen is the best professor on campus.

“She has an immense talent to make complex astronomy and physics concepts make sense at eight in the morning and is the hardest working professor that I know of,” Bell said. “She recently advised my honors thesis and would frequently have 40 pages of corrections and changes back to me in a day. How she is capable of her own productivity while managing her absolutely insane schedule is genuinely beyond me. It shouldn't be physically possible, but she proves otherwise.”

Bell plans to graduate with a degree in Physics with a concentration in Secondary Education. But after taking Larsen’s Stellar & Galactic Astronomy class two-and-a-half years ago, he picked up a minor in Astronomy.

“When  I took Dr. Larsen’s class, Central was still very much in the midst of the pandemic. The actual on-campus activities were very limited,” Bell said. “It was very difficult to get your foot in the door to engage in the campus community. Despite that Dr. Larsen did a great job of using technology in the class and made engaging with people and the material doable.”

When asked about being named a CSU Professor, Larsen said, “As best I can tell, it is an honorific title. I know as part of the application process I was asked by the advisory committee what I would do with my newfound superpowers. I said I would like to direct them toward student success and retention.”

Larsen said since being named a CSU Professor, she reached out to the incoming president of the Student Government Association looking for ideas for innovative programs they would like to see implemented to help students succeed and stay at Central.

She said, “This position doesn’t really come with an instruction manual, so I’m feeling it out as I’m going along.”