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Kids: The Golden Opportunity

The Setting:

It's a warm summer evening and you have you're favorite telescope and star charts setup in your back yard. Deeply engrossed in finding that elusive 12th magnitude galaxy that is supposedly an "easy find" you are startled by the following question;

"Whacha doing?"

Looking up you see 3 of the neighborhood kids eyeing your equipment with curiosity in their eyes. What do you do? What do you doooo?

Lights!, Camera!, and Action!

"Oh, Hi kids…, Tommy, Johnny, and… Sarah isn't it?

"Yep, Mr. Matulis, it's just us", says Sarah, "were just hangin' out." Tommy excitedly interjects, "Wow! Cool! What is all this stuff?"

"Well, this is an astronomical telescope and my star charts. I'm doing a little stargazing tonight."

"Stargazing, that stuff is for brain's and Einstein's!" Johnny proudly proclaims. "Heck, you can see anything through these 'ole telescopes anyway." He adds in an all-knowing manner.

At this point, you appear to go into a state of suspended animation as your mind takes you back to your childhood days when you first discovered astronomy for the first time. You are immediately captivated as you reminisce back to those feelings of utter joy and excitement you felt as you made your first discoveries. You remember the first time you saw Jupiter with it clouds and four moons and Saturn with its rings, and the fascinating lore of the constellations as you begin to recognize them one by one. How you were blown away at the detail you could see on the moon. You are mesmerized by the immensity, grander, beauty of the universe as you flip through the pages of that new astronomy book your parents got you for your birthday. You are even more excited at the revelation that you can see these wonders of Deep Space with your very own telescope. You were hooked, hooked for life… Wow…

Back to reality…

Soon, Johnny belts out, "Com' on guys, lets go watch TV at my house!"

"Oh, wait guys!" "There are some amazing things that can be seen if you know what to look for."

Once again, you enter into a state of deep thought. You think to yourself, "What do I do? How can I catch the interest of these kids's? At that moment, a feeling of fear, and disappointment comes over you as you realize, "Am I prepared for this?" "Am I going to miss a golden opportunity?" Your mind is racing as it becomes filled with the statistics of our age. "Modern youth have short attention spans." "The average school age child spends as much as 6-8 hours watching television per day." "Science scores across the country are down and there is a general lack of interest in science among our youth." More and more sound bites from the news keep flooding into your mind.


"Gee! Mr. Matulis." Shouts a startled Sarah. "What's the matter?"

"Err, Ah, I mean, C'mon back and I take you kids on a journey through time and space."

Even though the kids only have walked about 50 feet down the street from you and your telescope, you enter into a state of deep thought once again as they turn and walk back towards you. "Oh, I wish I would have prepared more for situations like this." Like the flash of a supernova, your mind is filled with ideas of how you could have prepared yourself for situations just like this. You begin to organize your thoughts and start making a list in your mind.

  • Be ready with cool and interesting facts about the universe. Some things that often capture the minds of kids are things like:
  • "Did you know that light travels 186,000 miles in one second!"
  • "Did you also know that it takes light leaving the Sun about 8 minutes to reach the Earth"
  • "And, I takes light from next nearest star to the Sun, over 4 and a half years to reach the earth!"
  • "You see that orange colored star up overhead, it's called Arcturus. The light you see from it now, left its surface over 37 years ago!" "And, that blue star rising in the east is called Deneb and its light left 3,262 years ago."
  • "Hey, did you know that Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and that all the other planets can fit inside the sphere of Jupiter."
  • Be ready to point out the constellations. For most kids this is something that can easily pick up on. Start with the simpler and brighter ones and encourage them to show them to their parents and friends. This may be their first success in understanding the universe and if you can give them the ability to grasp and repeat the successes they will be more likely to come back to it again and again and keep an interest in it.
  • Have some good stories about the constellations, their lore and history, to tell them. This will make it more memorable for them.
  • Be ready with a list of showpiece deep-sky objects for each season.
  • Be ready to explain each object, but keep the amount of information to the more basic and interesting facts as to not overload them. But be ready for lots of questions!
  • Keep your discussions age appropriate. Watch that you don't talk way over kids heads, but also, don't bore them with overly simplistic topics. Older kids will like to be challenged.

"Ok kids, the first stop on our journey through the universe is Mars. You see that reddish star to the south over the top of Mr. Wilson's house?"

"Sure Mr. Matulis, we see it!" says Johnny; "It looks kind of like that other red star over there not too far from it."

"Well, have a look at that red star through the telescope."

Tommy proudly points out, "Hey, doesn't look like much to me!"

"Ok, now look at this other red 'star', it's the planet Mars."

"Wow, Mr. Matulis, you can really see it! It has different colors and white snow at the top, cool!" Sarah excitedly points out.

"That's right guys, Mars is a planet with reddish soil and it even has polar caps like the Earth. Now, Mars is close to the Earth, only about 70 million kilometers."

"Did you know there was a place in the universe where there are so many stars packed into a small space that if you lived on a planet that orbits one of those stars, there would be no night?"

"Oh sure!, Mr. Matulis, you expect us to believe that?" declares Tommy.

"Sure, lets go there now. Take a look at this… It's a Globular Cluster, called M5."

"It's 25,000 light-years away! The light you are seeing was created 25,000 years ago and has been traveling through space over immense distances for all those years and you just caught some of that light in your eyes."

"Oh, this is so cool!" shouts Tommy. "It looks like a cotton ball of stars, awesome!"

Well, excited by your success so far, you enter a state of euphoric joy as you continue with your new friends on their journey through time and space. Perhaps you are giving these neighborhood kids their first taste of what is out in the vast universe. You have not missed the golden opportunity this time. Perhaps you have planted some seeds that will blossom someday. Hopefully all of your encounters with the neighborhood kids will go as well.

In conclusion, some practical points about what to do. First, be excited and enthusiastic as you give your presentation. Kids, being very shrewd, are very discerning when it comes to whether us grown-ups are sincere, or just brushing them off. Give them plenty of chances for hands-on scope experience. This will definitely enhance their excitement. Be sure to have lots of cool and interesting facts and stories to simulate and captivate their minds, otherwise you'll just end up with a mob of bored kids and the seeds you planted will not sprout. Be patient. Answer all their questions, even the seemingly silly ones, with sincerity and accuracy. If you don't know, tell them. If the kids are older, perhaps challenge them to find out. Above all else be willing. Invite them and their friends back. Who knows, you could be the one that inspires the next Walter Scott Houston, of even the next Carl Sagan, so seize every golden opportunity!


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