How to Have a Personal Experience with the Universe

One of the programs I manage at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) is Project ASTRO.  The basic idea of Project ASTRO is to partner volunteer astronomers with classroom teachers.  Each astronomer visits their teachers classroom multiple times during the school year.  A number of partnerships have endured for many years, adding to a cumulative impact of touching the lives of thousands of students.  It turns out amateur astronomers do just as well at sparking students’ interest as do the professional astronomers.  The really important part is in giving students the opportunity to personally engage in activities to connect them to the universe, whether in the classroom or at evening star gazing events for families at the school.  The experiential aspect of Project ASTRO is just an example of the importance of personal involvement in science.  Students have a better understanding and appreciation for not just astronomy, but for science in general.

Another program at the ASP is Sky Rangers.  This program has worked with park rangers in national and state parks to help them incorporate more interpretive programs relating to the night sky.  One of the unplanned for results of creating parks to protect sites of natural and historical importance is to also create islands of darkness.  With little commercial or residential development in parks, artificial lighting is relatively scarce, and what does exist is usually designed to minimize the impact on the darkness of the night sky.  Increasingly, parks are offering programs for visitors to experience seeing the stars away from the brightly lit communities where they live.  Astronomer and artist Tyler Nordgren (www.tylernordgren.com) has produced a series of posters for this effort urging park visitors to “See the Milky Way” and recognize that “Half the Park is After Dark.”

Yosemite_2012

Image: Tyler Nordgren (tylernordgren.com)

Both programs mentioned above improve the ability of learners of all ages to experience the night sky.  If we wish to have a scientifically literate population, more programs such as these are needed so more people can personally engage in a scientific activity, even the simple act of looking up and seeing the Milky Way for the first time.  In general, personal experience, or lack thereof, is a limiting factor in someone’s understanding and appreciation of nature and science.  A recent article (Why Do many Reasonable People Doubt Science? http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/science-doubters/achenbach-text?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email) explores this as it delves into the roots of the anti-science bias prevalent in some segments of society.  In many ways it comes down to a lack of understanding and comfort of what science is and how it is done.  Science is not just a collection of facts to memorize, it is a way of seeing and investigating nature.  To truly understand and appreciate science, one has to actively engage in the experience of doing science.  Otherwise it remains a mystery accessible only to members of the scientific tribe.

Providing a personal experience for someone is easy when it comes to astronomy, all you have to do is take them outside and have them actually look up at the night sky, or at the moon in the daytime sky, or a filtered view of the sun.  Seeing the Milky Way in the night sky was a normal occurrence in times past.  In these days of light polluted skies, one of the greatest gifts we can give a young person, or anyone for that matter, is to show them the Milky Way.  Find a park, go out after dark, and look up into the depths of the universe.

Admiring_the_Galaxy

Image: Wikimedia, ESO/A. Fitzsimmons
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