Unicorns and Starry Nights

This semester, a number of astronomers at UVa are participating in a project called Dark Skies, Bright Kids.  Each week, a group head out to a local elementary school and do astronomy-related project with the third, fourth, and fifth graders who have joined the astronomy club.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to join the Friday afternoon activities, but I did help out at one of the evening observing sessions on a clear Friday night in October.

Waiting on the sun to go down…

We set up a Galileoscope to look at Jupiter and an 11-inch telescope to look at everything else.  The kids arrived and were given glow bracelets so that we could see them in the dark. That was a very good idea, since the kids were so excited to be in their school’s playground in the dark, all they wanted to do was run. And RUN. And play around on the playground equipment. And RUN.  A few times we were able to shepherd them back to the telescopes where the other grad students were entertaining the parents, and they would look through and say “Wow!”  Kelsey Johnson, our fearless leader on this project, had plenty of worksheets for the students to do, and then they would run off again.

I decided, if you can’t fight them, join them! I joined their game, where they were pretending to be orphans living in the woods together… I was their pet unicorn that could hunt with my horn… really.  From there, I could try and tie in astronomy to our game. Kids in the woods need to tell directions, right? Let’s look at the North Star.  Well a unicorn is sort of like a horse… with wings… oh look, Pegasus!  I could usually entertain them for a bit before they’d run off or turn back to the game.  Later, Ryan, another one of the grad students helping out, took some of the kids over to look at another constellation. A few minutes in, they all start telling him about Pegasus.  I was shocked… although they had been talking and laughing and running, they were not only paying attention but they were absorbing they information! Kids are amazing. And kudos to those brave teachers that work with them day in and day out.

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