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Kids: Hands On Experience

Based on my experience, the question usually isn't "whatcha doing?"… it's "what the heck is that???" As astronomers, we take for granted that most people haven't a clue what a Schmidt-Cassegrain or Dobsonian telescope is used for, or even what it is for that matter. Most non-astronomers (yes, adults too) are thinking a telescope should have Tasco written across it with 520x glaring from the eyepiece.

As it would happen, I was out last summer when my two cousins (ages 9 and 11) were spending the night at our house. I was out in the back yard practicing my Messier hunting for the next (2001) Messier Marathon with my local astronomy club. I haven't been able to break 35 in a night yet (hey, I'm only 20 and exclusively used binoculars until 1999)… I had never really tried the great Messier Marathon and was determined too participate this coming year. Just as I was really getting into running through the Virgo cluster… a flashlight suddenly blinds me and I hear… " Wow… what the heck is that thing??" The familiar voice of Lacy, my 11 year old cousin had come out to ask if I wanted pizza for a late night snack.

After regaining my vision enough to even see Lacy, she was staring at my Meade 10" LX-10 with Magellan I computer. Before I could answer, she said… "Is that your telescope… why's it so fat?" I gave a very quick explanation. Yes, it was a telescope, and nothing happened to it, it was a different design from what you normally think of as a telescope. As we all know, the attention span of an 11 year old is about 20 seconds and I figured she'd just run back into the house. But I asked if she'd like to see something anyways, and she immediately responded with an excited yes. Now, most people would say that the way to really get someone interested is to show them the most spectacular object you can think of, which for me would be either M13 (Hercules), The Ring (Lyra), or some tight open clusters, which is very true, but I wanted to take it a step further. Kids (I'm still young… I know this for a fact) enjoy touching things… just seeing a cool object will elicit a "wow", but actually touching the telescope and feeling it is what really gets them going.

Up until now, I hadn't even turned on the computer because I was practicing old fashioned star hopping. I decided that I'd turn it on and let Lacy run the telescope herself ($1500+ , yikes!)… , all by herself. I asked if she wanted to learn how to use my telescope. She couldn't believe that I'd let her touch it!! Quickly turned the computer on and handed her the hand box. I hadn't even aligned it. I explained that for the computer to find things for you, it needed to be told by something smarter than it where a few stars are located. Her ego was already swelling with the thought of being smarter than a computer! I showed her Vega and Regulus and explained that because they were very bright and easy stars to locate, that we would point the telescope at them first to "align it". I showed her how to navigate the computer's buttons quickly and told her to keep pushing the down button until she saw VEGA on the display.

She was giggling with excitement and laughing at some of the funny looking names coming up on the screen. After exclaiming that she had found the our first alignment star on the screen, I showed her where to put her hands on the telescope and explained that you had to be careful not to hit the front of the telescope, but other than that, not to worry because she couldn't hurt it. I helped her move the telescope to VEGA and showed her how to find it in the finderscope first. She was practically jumping up and down when she realized that she had found her first star in a telescope basically all by herself. I told her to hit enter and then find REGULUS in the computer. By now, she was a pro at hitting the buttons and a wide smile was across her face. I started to help her move the scope to REGULUS, but she said " I can do it!" and started to correctly swing the scope right to the star that I had pointed to a few minutes ago.

Ten minutes into astronomy, and she was already finding things faster than me my first whole summer! After completing the alignment, she couldn't wait to see what the computer actually did. I told her that we could simply select something and it would show us where to point the telescope from now on. I put in a 35mm Plossl so that the object would be in the FOV when she moved the telescope. I helped her select M13 and explained that this was a big cluster of thousands of stars all clumped up. She asked where, and I pointed to the general area in Hercules. She slowly moved the telescope after I explained that she needed to make all of the numbers 0.00 to have the object in the telescope's view. She looked into the eyepiece and a gasp came from her mouth… "WOW look at what I found!" She didn't even really care if it was focused… she was just ecstatic that she had found it herself; I hadn't touched the telescope since Vega was in the viewfinder.

I showed her how to focus the image and she then realized that there were tons of stars in the cluster. She couldn't believe her eyes. She kept looking that they sky trying to see what she saw in the telescope. All the while firing questions like: "Why can't I see it without a telescope?" and "How many of those are there?"

She told me "don't touch it" and suddenly spun around and sprinted toward the house. She returned dragging my mom and my cousin David (9) with her. She was just bubbling with excitement telling them that she could find "globby clusters (!!!)" all by herself. Lacy, David and I spent the next 45 minutes looking at bright objects, but mostly they liked being able to move the telescope to different things.

We finally went in to eat our pizza that my mom had ordered. That night I learned a great deal about kids. Showing them something impressive would have been about 5 minutes out of my time and they would have walked away with an impressive, but worthless (to them anyways) sight in their minds. Lacy would have thought "wow that was neat looking" and went about her merry way. But the hands on experience and the feeling that she was the one doing the astronomy and finding "invisible" things in the stars made a lasting impression on her. Not only did they both whine when we packed up and went into eat ( I was starving), but they asked when the could come back to look at "globby clusters and nebrulas!!" Since last summer, they both have visited numerous times. They even came out on New Years Eve in the cold to see Jupiter and Saturn. The planets were an incredible sight for both of them, but they were still more excited about actually moving and finding things in the telescope. Both kids can now point out The Big Dipper, Polaris, The Summer Triangle, Orion, Cassiopeia… and their first big sight… the area between the Keystone in Hercules where M13 is located!

To conclude, and answer the perplexing question of how to get young kids interested in our time consuming and extremely patient hobby of astronomy, I will say this: Don't PREACH… TEACH. If you don't have a Push-To/ GOTO telescope, help them move the telescope, but never place the object in the FOV. Pick bright objects and point to the bright stars around the object. Tell them to move the telescope around slowly and they'll see something bright and fuzzy move across the EP. Show them how to use the finderscope and how to focus things. Let them TOUCH (yes, your $3000 setup) your equipment, just explain how to carefully handle delicate equipment, children are very respectful of people's property (more so than some adults).

Also, break out the Kellners and cheap Plossls at first, but after they get the hang of not "fingering" everything, don't be afraid to break out the Naglers and such. The feeling of that first "Nagler spacewalk" will guarantee that they enjoy the experience much more. A beautiful view shown to them by you is a great experience, but a beautiful view FOUND BY THEM is UNFORGETTABLE. They will have stories to impress their friends about using a "Smit-Crasagrayn" telescope and how they can find "globby clusters" and "nebrulas". Who cares if they can pronounce them at age 11 anyways!! If more children are introduced into DOING astronomy instead of SEEING astronomy, they are more likely to really find a growing interest in the wonderful heavens above our lonely blue planet. The satisfaction of introducing such an exciting and educational hobby to a young person completely nullifies the satisfaction of finding that elusive 12th magnitude galaxy. You won't even care if you look through the telescope the whole night. Just watching their faces and answering their amazingly fundamental questions we forget about will make you a very proud stargazer and a very important person in their young lives.


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