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Kids: The Sky Shared
Editors note: Tom's article is a superb example of how little it takes to ignite a spark of interest in astronomy in a child. As we move into the warmer months (04-02), consider briefly if there are any kids in your neighborhood with whom you can share 1 evening under the heavens with. If each of us takes the time to share 1 night/summer with our neighborhood kids, amateur astronomy would no longer be devoid of the younger generation.
Sometimes the best memories start off in the smallest ways. I'm Director of IT for a public school system, but more importantly; I teach. I have for years. I don't have many classes anymore. In fact I have time for only one HS computer science class, but that class is one of the reasons that I stay in education. The chance to work with children, with young minds that want to learn is extremely rewarding.
It started one day after class with a student coming up to me and asking if
I'd seen the new "comet thingie". As I replied that yes, I had, another
approached and commented that he'd seen it using his dad's binoculars. Hearing
this (and seeing a crowd developing) a third and fourth dropped in to see what
the discussion was about. After talking about the comet for a short while one
of the students turned to me and asked if I owned a telescope. "Well yes,
actually I have a couple." - "What does it look like through the scope?"
Rarely does opportunity knock so loudly.
After a bit of discussion, we decided the best thing to do would be for anyone interested to get together that weekend on one students farm, assuming that was alright. He agreed to check with his parents and let me know the next day. As it turned out, it was OK, and they were happy to help out. One or two had department store scopes they wanted to bring, a couple binoculars - but mostly they just wanted to see the comet through what they considered "a real" telescope. We agreed to meet around sunset Friday night.
Come Friday evening I arrived early at the designated spot. Parents began dropping their kids off accompanied by high beams and radios blaring. Kids climbed out of cars, and the adults unloaded snacks. There was a palpable excitement in the air. Some of the parents stayed for a little while but left once they saw things were under control. Some of the kids were old enough to drive themselves, and parked off to the side.
The first thing we did was set up the equipment. It was pretty easy. There wasn't much. A few scopes (mostly mine) and a binocular or two, but they all brought their minds, and a (growing) fascination with the universe. Those would prove to be the most important tools they could possibly bring.
Of course everybody wanted to see the comet. That was a pretty big hit. We used binoculars and a couple of small scopes to view the comet and tail, and a larger 8" to examine the nucleus. General consensus was that the best views of the comet were through the lower power / rich field instruments. I think this surprised many of them. They thought the bigger the scope the better the view. They found that things aren't always like you expect them to be. Contrary to how most Americans live their lives, size isn't everything.
After everybody had a turn with the comet, they started wondering what else was out there. I don't recall exactly what we looked at (and I am sure that they don't either). Saturn and Jupiter undoubtedly, the Pleiades for sure, the Andromeda Galaxy and more were probably on the list. I pointed out a few of the brighter constellations. We didn't hunt faint fuzzies and there were no 13th mag galaxies on the schedule that night. Most people aren't really thrilled by the sight of an extremely dim bit of cotton. We pretty much stuck to the bright stuff.
While I don't remember exactly what we saw, I do think its safe to say that none of us were taking notes. We weren't concerned with the science, facts or figures. It really didn't even matter if we were using our eyes, binoculars or a telescope. The only thing that I'm sure about was we all had a really good time. After a while I stopped trying to watch the stars. I stepped back and watched them. Anyone who has ever been a parent can tell you that watching a child enjoy themselves is a reward in and of itself. In a short while, they had figured out how to work the scopes and change eyepieces. The binoculars and smaller scopes got swapped around a fair bit. One kid latched on to the 8" and the star charts for the evening and spent the night hunting Messiers (with a little help). Several of them spent the night running from scope to scope to binocular after cries of - "WHOAH - look at this!" Finally, most of them stopped wondering what they had found with the telescopes or binoculars and simply sat back scanning the heavens.
When they left, the mood was a little different than when they arrived. I heard kids scolding their parents for pulling in with their high beams on and "ruining" everybody's night vision. If the radios blared on the way out, I don't remember it. What I do remember was the happy looks on their faces. Seeing the universe like this tends to change you in ways that astronomers know well, but most of us (I anyway) have taken for granted for far too long a time. I heard a few requests for scopes or binoculars, and a few (very unnecessary) thanks.
It didn't take much. I can't even really say that I started it. I did however, take advantage of it. For a while that night, we did something that few people have done. We saw a comet that had not been seen for hundreds of years, starlight that was thousands of years old, and other worlds in our little corner of the galaxy. For a night, I think it really struck home to these kids just exactly where our spot in creation sits. It's a pretty big universe out there. That we are here and able to appreciate it makes it all the more special. I think that night helped them realize that. I do know that it gave me some very fond memories. I hope it did the same for them.
When it gets down to it kids, they really are pretty easy to please. They don't ask much. Like everybody else, they really only want three things; a little of your time, your respect, and an acknowledgement. If you have a chance to share the sky with children - little ones, teens or even grownup kids, just remember that and you will do fine. Show them what they want to see.
As time goes by, maybe some of you who were there will find this and read it. Maybe you will have a scope of your own, maybe binoculars. Some may have nothing but your eyes. Some will have children, some won't. Some of you won't have looked at the night sky in years. Maybe this article will get you go out and stare at the night sky just one more time. If you remember that night, if you remember it fondly - I would only ask this; Take advantage of your opportunities and pass it on when you have the chance. And finally, I would thank you.
Tom is the Director of Technology for Bad Axe Public Schools in Michigan's
thumb and loves working with children of all ages. His wife finds this fitting,
as he is just a big kid himself. He won't admit to much, but certainly will
admit to eagerly awaiting the chance to share the universe with his 11 month