University News

Astronomers pass on passion for space

By
Contributing Writer

Astronomers from the Department of Physics taught a crowd of more than 100 children and parents about outer space at “Stargazers,” a collaborative event held at the Providence Children’s Museum last Friday. Attendees romped between models of the Earth and moon, peered through a telescope and listened as scientists explained videos of meteors, planets and stars.

“This is a great opportunity for a lot of children who might have never thought, ‘Wow, this is something that I could study, it’s a job that real people have,'” said Cathy Saunders, director of education at the museum.  

The event featured a partially illuminated globe, which showed how day and night are caused by the Earth’s rotation. Michael Umbricht, Ladd Observatory curator, projected time-lapse videos of the night sky onto a wall. As the film sped through a night’s worth of pictures, Umbricht pointed out clouds, planes, meteors and the slow rotation of the constellations around the North Star. John Rossi, an AmeriCorps Museum educator, asked children to look at a model and identify which side of the moon they always see from Earth.

Ryan Michney GS showed videos of the aurora borealis – charged particles from the sun that are drawn to Earth’s magnetic poles also known as the “Northern Lights” – as seen from space. “I’m more interested in research and science, but it’s really fun to come and do things like this and talk to kids who are interested in astronomy, and I can tell them, ‘Hey! Watch NOVA, or come to the Ladd Observatory,'” Michney said.

One young boy sat transfixed in front of the projected images of space, whispering questions about Pluto’s moons to his mother to relay to Michney. He already knew about the moon Charon but wanted to know about the other smaller ones.

“He has all these little factoids because he loves to learn about it,” his mother said to Michney.

The room bustled with activity as children huddled around each scientist to point and ask questions. “The kids have so much fun and remind me of how I want to interact with the world,” said Rachel Cronin ’08, experience coordinator at the museum.

The event was offered for free through the museum’s MetLife Family Friday program.  Aamina Ahmed, a parent from Cumberland, RI, heard about the event online.  “My daughter just learned about the solar system in school, so she was excited to come,” Ahmed said.

Ian Dell’Antonio, assistant professor of physics, reached out to the museum through Brown’s Science Center last fall about a possible collaboration. The museum does not have an exhibit about stars, so “it’s good that we can fill a niche that they don’t already have,” Dell’Antonio said.

The museum is very receptive to collaborators and volunteers from Brown, said Carly Baumann, education programs coordinator at the museum. “When a child can talk to someone with a passion for the space and the stars, it just brings everything to a whole new level.” 

Since clouds blocked the evening sky Friday night, the event was held indoors. Despite the clouds, new opportunities are on the horizon for collaboration between the museum and University astronomers. 

AmeriCorps volunteers from the museum will receive training to use small portable solar telescopes to see the spots on the sun during the day. The Ladd Observatory will then lend these telescopes out to the volunteers for use in programs like the Learning Club, a science-focused after-school program at the South Side Boys and Girls Club.

The AmeriCorps volunteers will use the solar telescopes to teach multi-session lessons about the sun. “If you loan the telescopes out, kids can look at the sun over multiple days and see the sun’s rotation,” Dell’Antonio said. “We don’t typically think of the sun as rotating.” 

Brown students can get involved at the museum by volunteering, curating exhibits or proposing ideas for events. The museum is holding another collaborative event April 28, a neuroscience exhibit called “SENSEsational” with hands-on activities for each of the senses, Baumann said. Students from Brown Science Prep will help develop the event and serve as museum guides at the exhibit, said Stephanie Koo ’13, a member of Brown Science Prep.