NEW ALBANY — Dr. Phillip Asher's first geology class of the semester didn't begin with just talk of rocks but instead of something extraterrestrial.

"I said, 'I wouldn't think of myself as much of a science teacher if I didn't give you a little mini lesson on eclipses,'" Asher, professor at Indiana University Southeast, said.

Though Monday marked the first day of the fall semester at IU Southeast, many students were let out of class early to congregate on the lawn near McCullough Plaza, where they witnessed a celestial phenomenon singular in their lives thus far.

The university assigned a solar theme to its regular Week of Welcome, an event that kicks off the academic year. Students queued down a sidewalk near the plaza, hoping to get their hands on a pair of coveted glasses to view a near total solar eclipse.

Administrators also passed out festive favors, including Moon Pies, Sun Chips and Eclipse chewing gum. Students threw darts at a giant dart board and played cornhole. Live stream video from NASA was displayed on a screen under a tent outside and in a concert hall at the Ogle Center for performing arts.

For most students the chance to see the eclipse, especially after all its publicity, was an exciting opportunity.

Sophomore Fayona Stewart said she was excited because "I've never seen it before, and now I get to see it.

"It's just historic," she said.

For the university's School of Natural Sciences, the eclipse is a way for the quieter academic group to take the spotlight.

"It's given us an opportunity to advertise to the community as well as the campus that yeah, we're here, and we do science," said Dean Elaine Haub.

The open event ended up growing larger than Haub anticipated. Faculty and staff advertised they were giving away 500 certified viewing glasses, which the dean guessed was a huge draw.

But she's also encouraged at the large number of people who, above all else, are interested in science.

"It's a subject that most people can get their head around, so there's an attraction there," Haub said. " ... Little kids are excited. The most elderly person is excited about the stars and the planets and when there's a comet and an eclipse ... all range of people find it interesting."

For Asher, who has taught astronomy, the study and witness of the eclipse is a humbling reminder of science's true magnitude.

"It actually kind of lets you know our place in the universe and really how insignificant we really are," he said. "These celestial events are going on, and there would be nothing any one of us can do about it ...

"We're at the total mercy of the universe."

Monday morning, Asher showed his students a picture of the Earth taken in the 1960s from space.

"I told my students, I said, 'I was on that little ball. I was living on that little ball then. I was somewhere on there running around,'" Asher said.

He said his students were intrigued by the science of eclipses, especially so because of the "hands-on" component.

"When they see it firsthand or when they do something firsthand right after you've taught it or just before you teach it, the learning is much more intensified," Asher said.

Freshman Tabitha Bowling, who was let out of class early, finds a fascination in the unknowns of outer space.

"There's something that drew me to it," she said at the McCullough Plaza with a pair of safe viewing glasses in hand. "We've been to space, but we haven't been way out there to space, and we'll never go see the sun — but here, I can."

In seven years, that path will cross the southern half of Indiana, with optimal viewing spots near Indianapolis.

"Right now, I've gone my whole life and never seen totality, but I've come close," said Asher, whose colleague spent the day in Hopkinsville to view the total eclipse. "Seven years from now, I won't be teaching here. If I'm living, I'm going to head up that way and experience it before I die."

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Elizabeth is the Southern Indiana government reporter for the News and Tribune. She is a Louisville, Ky. native and graduate of Western Kentucky University. Follow her on Twitter at @EMBeilman.

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