I’ve spoken recently with a number of scientists about ways they’ve tried to connect with the public with regards to their work. There was a lot of good dialogue on a number of issues, but there was one big topic that kept coming up—the importance of engaging kids in the sciences.
Most of us remember watching Bill Nye or the Magic School Bus as kids. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but those videos were by far the best part of science class. They mixed tidbits of hard science with an energetic passion for curiosity and exploration. I think that’s a big reason behind their success. You didn’t need to have a background in science to get excited and want to learn. I think that’s really important.
There’s a local astronomy group, the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association, that does something similar. Every couple of weeks during the spring, summer, and fall they hold public viewing nights at the Veen Observatory in Lowell, Michigan. I make it out as often as I can. The domed telescopes open up for everyone to use. It can get a little crowded inside, but you rarely hear anyone complaining.
As an added bonus, and something that really adds to the overall experience, there’s a number of amateur astronomers who bring in their own telescopes to set up outside. They like to share their knowledge and passion, and there is nothing amateur about their equipment or their knowledge. This is an underrated part of the public viewing nights that make it a great place for kids to get excited about the cosmos. You don’t need to understand astrophysics to look up at the stars. It’s one thing to learn about the universe in school. It’s something entirely different to see it for yourself.
I tend to shy away from what I think my be construed as advertising, so I will simply extend the website for the Veen Observatory and Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association if you’re interested in learning more.