Monday, April 19, 2010

Kids & Public Astronomy

As most of you know, I have two modest telescopes, and although I enjoy observing alone at home, my biggest thrill in astronomy is taking my telescopes out in public and letting visitors look through them. I also enjoy talking with visitors, and answering questions, especially from kids. Kids still have that sense of wonder, and aren’t inhibited about asking questions most adults would think of as ridiculous. I think they also have a natural curiosity to see and touch the telescopes, and know how they work, which to me is perfectly understandable, but usually seems to drive their parents crazy. The comments I hear most often at public astronomy events are, “Wow, you can really see the rings,” “Wow, look at all those craters,” and my least favorite, “Be careful, and don’t touch anything.”

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that parents are concerned about taking care of my equipment, both for my own enjoyment, and for others at the event, but I think more of a hands on approach, especially for older kids, is the way to inspire them. Parents with children about five years old or younger usually closely monitor their children and assist them at the eyepiece, and I wouldn’t want it any other way, but too many parents are the same way with kids 8-12 years old, and I don’t get it. At least not when the kid is obviously interested in astronomy.

Last Friday night, March 26, I set up my telescopes outside Valparaiso University’s campus observatory during their public viewing. One woman had a little boy, probably about three years old. I had my 6” Dobsonian roughly trained at Saturn (I hadn’t adjusted the position in awhile), and when nobody was looking through it, this boy went to the front of the telescope, grabbed the front of the tube, and turned it away from him. It was rather funny to watch, but I’m sure his mother was horrified. “No don’t’ touch it!” she yelled. I told her it was okay, and that if it wasn’t okay, I would have left the telescopes at home. Since the kid was now looking down the open end of the tube, I pointed and said, “Look. There’s a mirror at the other end. Do you see yourself?” I think that let the mother know that I didn’t have a problem with him touching the telescope. At least I hope it did.

There was also a girl there around 10-12 years old, and her parents seemed fairly knowledgeable and encouraging. With the big 16” telescope in the observatory, a 6” SCT set up outside by the VU astronomy students, and my 6” Dob and 4.5 "go-to" Newtonian, there were four telescopes available for viewing. This family, and particularly the girl, was bouncing around from scope to scope, trying to see as much as possible. I had my 4.5” tracking the Orion Nebula for awhile, since most people had already seen Saturn, Mars, and the Moon. It’s a bright, easy target, but isn’t as appreciated at public events as the Moon and planets. Guess who seemed genuinely excited to see the Orion Nebula? Yep, the girl. When nobody was at the telescope, she came back to give it another look, and as she was walking up to look, I saw she bumped the scope slightly. I wasn’t going to say anything about it, since I loved her enthusiasm, and was ready to play off that the telescope must not be tracking properly. Her mom though, was already giving the “be careful” speech and telling me that her daughter had bumped into it. I took a peek through the 25mm eyepiece, and the glowing gas cloud was still partially visible at the edge of the field of view. I took the controller and gave it a quick nudge to the right, just to make sure that was the direction it needed to go. Rather than admonishing the girl, I wanted to reward her enthusiasm, so I gave her the hand controller, told her to look in the eyepiece, and give the right control button a couple of quick hits until the nebula was centered again. She did, and when she saw it moving in the eyepiece she yelled, “That’s so cool!” Made my night, really. I probably would have let her explore the Moon with a higher power eyepiece on her own, but they headed off to the observatory shortly after, and I didn’t see them again.

So my question, and reason for sharing these stories, is this: how should I balance being careful with my equipment and accommodating a child’s curiosity? I would hate for anything to happen to my telescopes, but I also hate the thought of killing a kid’s curiosity and imagination with a “hey, don’t touch that” attitude . Does anybody have a horror story about damaged equipment at a public viewing event? What about stories where you’ve extended trust to a kid who has demonstrated a real interest, and been rewarded with a great question or comment? How do you let the “don’t touch anything” parents know that I want their kids to use the telescopes, and that simply bumping into them isn’t going to hurt anything? Any advice is appreciated.

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