Heart of the Valley Astronomers Outreach Program

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It's no secret that one of the more gratifying aspects of being in a hobby involves nurturing the interest of kids in that pursuit. After all, they have an inborn enthusiasm not often seen in teenagers or adults. That energy and their inimitable curiosity compels looking at the stars in ways that give a different and refreshing perspective to the world a bove us.

An ongoing interest of Heart of the Valley Astronomers is to present the sky and its delights to school children in the region. This takes the form of a classroom presentation coupled with an outdoor viewing session. We have participated in outreach presentations for fourth grade students at Adams and Hoover Elementary Schools. And in classes of Greg and Chris Caster it quickly became obvious that anything I could do to present astronomy was bound to be eclipsed by the effervescence of ideas that the kids had for the subject.

A panorama photo from the Mars Pathfinder probe - the one that used a lander to place a "rover" on the surface - gave a great illustration of this fact. Pointing to a detail on the photo, I asked the class why the lander would have two ramps. I didn't even finish the question when at least two kids shot up their hands. Within a minute the kids told me that extra ramps could (in my words); stabilize the lander on the ground, be used to accommodate more than one rover, be used as a sort of bridge in case NASA wanted to quickly move the rover from one side of the lander to the other, and as a way to get the rover on the ground in case the main ramp's path was blocked by a large rock. The extra ramps were intended by NASA for the last suggestion. But when you think about the other ideas, they make pretty good sense. Did the scientists consider the merits of these extra uses, I wonder. This interactive class experience gives students a strong sense of empowerment in their learning. Teachers agree, "the hands-on learning is ... motivating and the kids can gain so much more than reading ... from a book," commented Adams Elementary teacher Chris Caster. "They were excited to share what they knew...and anxious to have their questions answered."

A big part of educating people is, of course, answering questions. Adults will almost invariably ask in a very specific manner. Something concise, something that just requires looking up a fact or two in a reference source "...how thick is Venus' atmosphere anyway?" With kids, I think I end up learning more than they. Kids have a way of questioning about the heavens (among everything else) in open, fundamental ways. In ways that require us to use our wits to the utmost to arrive at a good answer for. Hence we find ourselves explaining how it feels to be weightless and why planets are shaped like spheres. "Why does light travel so fast?" - read one query from a Hoover fourth grader last spring. It took me the better part of a day to figure out how to go about answering that one. And I still hope I didn't goof on that particular answer.