University Lowbrow Astronomers

Talking to Sixth Graders.

by Collin McClain
Printed in Reflections: February, 2003.

Last fall at my son’s 6th grade open house, we met his teachers and found out that the first unit they were doing in science class was astronomy.  My wife quickly volunteered me to bring my telescopes into class and give a talk.  That thought was crossing my mind also but my wife is just quicker at the draw.  I told the teachers that I had a solar filter so I could set up a scope to look at the sun.  We arranged for me to come in and give about a 20 minute talk and then set up outside and have the kids take a look at some sun spots.

I brought in three telescopes; Intes’ MK66 Maksutov-Cassegrain, a short tube 80 refractor, and Orion’s XT8 dob.  I had a glass solar filter for the XT8 but decided to adapt it for the MK66 since I had a drive for the mount and it would be a lot easier to keep the sun in view with it than using the dob.  I also decided to get the BAADER solar material and build a filter for the short tube 80.  The dew shield cap for the ST80 has a built in aperture mask; just leave the cap on and take off the little cap.  It reduces the aperture to about 42 mm or so, and since the sun is nice and bright, you don’t need a lot of aperture to look at it.  I thought I’d just fashion a simple solar filter using the material and some cardboard that would fit snugly inside the cap.  As luck would have it, the material came the morning I was to go into class, and so I was able to build the filter and I would have two scopes for the kids to look through.

I gave the talk after lunch, and as the kids came into the room, most were pretty impressed with the XT8; a few oohs and wows.  I asked how many had telescopes and I was surprised that probably about a third of the class raised their hands.  I then ask how many had used them recently and there were only a few hands up.  Since I had an example of all three basic types of telescopes, I thought I would give a very quick explanation of the differences between them, lens versus mirrors and such.  Next, I told them about the Lowbrows and the open houses we have at Peach Mountain on Saturdays and invited them out.

My plan was to give a quick overview of the different types of objects you could see in a telescope and what to expect.  I started out by saying that if they did come to an open house, someone would probably say something like “That’s M13 you’re looking at.”  I explained who Charles Messier was and how he started a catalog of deep space objects that weren’t comets and that most amateur astronomers start out by tracking down and viewing these objects.  I then explained about the different types of deep space objects, followed by the planets and then the sun.  I had a quick question time after my talk before we headed outside.  “What’s the largest telescope?,” which I actually looked up before my talk, was one of the questions.

I mentioned the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which is 305m in diameter, Keck & Keck II in Hawaii, and the VLT in Chile, which has all four units operational now.  I also came across a web site about European Southern Observatory’s OWL (OverWhelmingly Large) 100 meter optical telescope which is just in the concept phase.  It’s on their website:  A hundred meters...  wow...  now that might cure some people’s aperture fever.

Of course a student asked if there’s extraterrestrial life, another wanted to know how much my telescopes cost, and someone asked if they were going to be able to see the sun’s corona, which I thought was a well informed question for a sixth grader.

Having the two scopes worked well.  The BAADER filter worked quite well and I used it on the short tube 80 and had a low power view of the entire sun.  I then had the MK66 zoomed in a bit more at some of the sun spots.  There were about 60 kids (2 classes), so the teachers decided to sent out about four at a time to look through the scopes.  This was a very good idea.  The vast majority of kid’s reactions were “Oh cool!”  Others commented, “Is that the sun?  It’s just ball.”  Only a few students weren’t that interested, with one saying “Where’s the flames?  I don’t see any flames” and I don’t think he was referring to coronal mass ejections.  A couple were more interested and asked what causes sunspots and if they moved or changed.  Even the principal and the music teacher of the school stopped by and had a quick look.

It was a fun time and I’m glad I volunteered to do it, which was good because one of the other science teachers noticed us out there, and so I got to do it all over again the following week for the other two sixth grade classes doing astronomy. The following Peach Mountain open house (which was in October) I didn’t notice if any of the students had come out, but hopefully some will make it this spring.  Later in the fall we went in for conferences and the teachers told me they were planning to come to our open house for the Leonid meteor shower.  Don’t know if they tried to make it or whether they decided not to go because of the weather.  One note, I had read that it is possible to view Jupiter during the day so I had made an attempt to find it.  From what I read it seemed that it was easiest to find if it was somewhat close to the moon.  But unfortunately it wasn’t close to the moon the day I was at the school.  I tried first lining up the scope on the sun, and then using the mount’s setting circles to move the scope to where Jupiter should have been, and scanned around.  I did this before I gave the talk, which was a good thing, because after 15-20 minutes I couldn’t find it and gave up.  If anyone has ever located and seen Jupiter or Saturn during the day I’d like to hear about it.


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