University Lowbrow Astronomers


by Charlie Nielsen
Printed in Reflections: June, 2010.

Lowbrows at Lawton School

Admittedly, the title of this article is a slight exaggeration. However, the University Lowbrow Astronomers have recently been on a tour of Ann Arbor elementary schools. The seed for this program was a result of our club’s Saturday Morning Physics presentation in March of 2009. An Enrichment Facilitator for Ann Arbor Public Schools was in attendance and favorably impressed with our program. Last fall I was contacted by Lisa Bankey, who informed me that several Ann Arbor elementary schools were doing an astronomy class and they thought it would be really cool if our club could do something to enhance their efforts. In my discussion with Lisa we defined, at least roughly, what we might actually do for them. Obviously, the Saturday Morning Physics program would be too advanced for the target age group, but the general idea of what we do and how we do it still seemed like the foundation for a presentation that the kids could learn from and enjoy while doing it. I then went on the recruitment trail to find some fellow Lowbrow Astronomers that could dedicate some time for this, and to make matters more difficult we had to do the program during regular business / working hours. Somehow, it seems like our club always comes through on these endeavors, and this was no exception. The team members for this project changed as we went along, which is understandable given the hours. The initial team consisted of this author, Dave Snyder, Yumi Inugi, Yasu Inugi, Srini Sundararajan, and Bobby Gruszcyinski. I provided an explanation of the general idea and the team took off. Yasu wrote up a proposed program that accomplished our objective and was targeted well for the age group we thought we would be dealing with. It was so on target and well designed that we all endorsed it with little modification.

It went like this: Since we would be dealing with as many as 75+ students, it would be easier for us and them if we start out by splitting them into two different groups doing two different parts of the program. This required two rooms; a classroom, and the school’s multi-purpose room which is usually the largest room in the building. In the classroom one of us used our laptop computer to run the freeware astronomy program Stellarium, projected on the room’s screen. The students were all given Uncle Al’s Star Wheels, which is a free planisphere. But, we made them actually make the star wheels first. We wanted the whole program to be very “hands on,” and you will see that idea carry over to the other part of the program. At this point I wish to thank Jim Forrester, whose printing company printed the star wheels for a very low cost. It consists of two sheets of heavy “card stock” paper with an image on each one. Both sheets need to have cuts made, and one has a portion that must be folded over and stapled or taped. Jim even scored the fold over portion, and drilled scissors starter holes in the other sheet where one part is an interior cutout. I sent Jim a little text insert which said compliments of University Lowbrow Astronomers, and listed our website. After the kids assembled the star wheels we showed them how to hold and use them. Then Stellarium was used to dial in some various dates and times and we had the kids match the screen with the star wheels. We also had them do it the other way around. Sometimes a student would select some date many centuries into the future, which was a great opportunity to explain stellar motion. Of course the students kept the star wheels to take home, and hopefully show their parents and siblings.

Meanwhile in the big room, we started out by showing the kids a short slide show that dealt with how to handle a telescope, how they work, and why they should respect them and handle them with care. After the slide show we had the kids break into smaller groups of about 5 each and go up to some tables where we had several small telescopes set up. Four of these scopes were Celestron Firstscopes (3” table top DOB) that were purchased and owned by the club, plus a fifth one purchased by Srini for the club. We also used Yasu and Yumi’s Firstscopes, and at some locations Orion Starblast scopes owned by Bobby and Dave. On a far wall we attached several images of planets, clusters, the Moon, etc. One image was a full moon shot that Yasu modified by inserting some small pictures into some select craters. The pictures were President Obama, Einstein, Bobby, me, and some cartoon characters. I thought this was a pretty cute idea, and so did the kids. Thanks Yasu! The idea was to teach the kids how to move, aim (with red dot finders) and focus the scopes. We usually got a second round in where we had them change to a higher power eyepiece. All the while we asked them what they saw and experienced. Did the image dim at higher power, was it inverted, etc. This was the most challenging portion of the program because only one child was able to use the scope at a time, and the others were behind that one chomping on the bit to get their turn. Trying to keep them from shaking the table was a pretty constant effort. But no riots or mayhem broke out.

Each half of the program was about forty minutes long, at the end of which we reversed the two groups and started over. By having two rather short segments we thought we could keep their attention better, and generally this was the outcome. We started our tour in February at Lawton Elementary. The images with this article are from that site (Go here for more photos from Lawton). In March we visited Martin Luther King, and two weeks later Thurston. Our April appearance was at Pattengill, and we concluded in May at Haisley. Five schools in four months; I think that is a demonstration of this club’s dedication to an objective. At all events except Haisley we did this for third graders. At Haisley it was fifth grade, which we think was the better age group for our program. Classes were as large as 77 to as small as 41. The Enrichment Facilitators that we worked with were Lisa Bankey, Pat Zawacki, Linda Matton and Nancy Beltaire. They were all very pleasant to work with. All of them, and everyone one else that we heard comments from, loved our program. The majority of the kids really enjoyed the program, and I think they must have learned something along the way. I have been told that we should expect to be asked to do another program next school year. This was a fun program to do, and hopefully we have started the process of turning some of the kids into amateur (or even pro) astronomers some day. How many will become Lowbrows? I can think of at least a couple of them that I was ready to sign up right now. Many of the questions were very funny. One example was when I was asked if we all had telescopes. I said yes, in fact some of us had more than one. The next question was how many I had. In my response I said “I have at least one in every room in my house.” Immediately another hand went up and I was asked if that included the bathroom. That kid is definitely ready to be a Lowbrow! They loved my answer. I scratched my chin and replied “Wow, I guess I have room for a couple more.” At the next school I was asked if I had any scopes in my bathroom. Wow, the word travels well, even across schools.

At the beginning of this article I Iisted the names of our initial team members. There were several others that participated at one school or more. They are Belinda Lee, Paul Juska, Jack Brisbin, Don Fohey, Ken Ruble, Betsy Dugan and Sandy Dugan. Thank you, and congratulations to all of you for a job well done! You have represented the University Lowbrow Astronomers very well, and maybe helped influence some young minds in a very positive way.

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