Q&A: Astronomer Kelsey Johnson Offers Pro Tips on Sneaky Science Education

Kelsey Johnson headshot

Astronomer Kelsey Johnson has come up with activities with her children, and offers suggestions to other parents. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

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University of Virginia astronomy professor Kelsey Johnson’s research is focused on star formation in the early universe, but she also is laser-focused on the development of the minds of her three children. Like most parents, she is spending a lot of time with them during this period of physical distancing.

Johnson knows a thing or two about engaging young people in outdoor educational activities, with a focus on astronomy. She is president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, a public outreach scientific and educational organization, and is the founding director of Dark Skies Bright Kids, an educational program for elementary school children in Virginia.

Here, Johnson offers some creative ideas for engaging children in the night sky, and in nature generally.

Q. How can parents involve their children in learning activities outside?

A. The good news is your kids don’t have to get up early for school. Why not let them stay up past their normal bedtimes and do a little stargazing? With the cooler temperatures at night, and not so many mosquitoes, this is perfect for spending some quality time outside at night with kids.

A pro tip, though – make it fun. Pack a “nighttime picnic” and gamify it: whoever sees the first star to come out wins a prize; make up your own constellations out of stars you see and come up with crazy stories behind them. If you have to bribe your kids to go out at night and to stay there long enough to appreciate the stars, you totally have my blessing.

Once you settle in to being outside at night, you might be astounded by the questions that kids ask. There is something about being outside with the universe in your face that leads to people opening up. You’re not a Ph.D. astrophysicist? That’s great – really, how many does the world need? It’s a chance for you to model being curious about the amazing universe and our place in it.  Make a plan to investigate answers. Hopefully these answers will lead to more questions. Curiosity is at the heart of discovery, and frankly it makes things more fun – at least for dyed-in-the-wool nerds like me.

My family is pretty fortunate because we live out in the country, with no lack of nature to explore outside without breathing on someone. But even in urban or suburban environments there is a lot to do outside. The really great thing about being outside is that you can get really messy. Here are a few activities that my kids love.

  • Make a guidebook to your neighborhood with a map, landmarks and highlights.
  • Experiment with bubble-blowing and what makes big or small bubbles.
  • Go on a bug safari, trying to find as many types of bugs as you can. Keep a journal describing where they were found, what they were doing, and sketch what they look like.
  • Make magical fairy houses out of twigs and leaves or recycled milk cartons and bottles.
  • Look for different kinds of spider webs and sketch them. Why are they made the way they are? If the resident spider is around, figure out what kind of spider it is.
  • Create sculptures out of natural objects, à la environmental artists Tim Pugh or Andy Goldsworthy, and keep a blog of the beauty you might find in everyday objects.
  • Anything to do with mud. Make sculptures, cast footprints, play with fluid dynamics. Hose the kids off before they come back inside and you’re good to go.

Q. Where can parents find resources?

A. A great resource for curated astronomy activities that are specifically designed for pre-K or K-12 students is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, which is the leading astronomy outreach organization in the world. Here you can find instructions for making constellation cookies, or translating an alien message.

The Dark Skies Bright Kids program, founded at UVA, also has a number of lesson plans online that you can download for free. If you’re ready to make a mess, you can make your own comet, model impacts from asteroids, or make your own pocket solar system. We also have a Spanish/English astronomy book, created by former UVA students, that you can download for free. We literally have thousands of physical copies of the book to distribute as well, but only after we’re allowed back in the office!

There is also really cool free software available to download. One of my favorites is a program called Stellarium, which is a pretty powerful planetarium you can run on a laptop. Let kids loose with this software, and they will be exploring the universe for hours.

Q. What are you doing with your children?

A. Mostly trying to keep the kids from driving us and each other crazy. That is a moving target and possibly unachievable. I hope that someone writes a book on “Parenting During a Pandemic” so we all have a manual to follow in the future.

Like many parents, we’re trying to figure this out as we go. We are trying to stick to a schedule every day (the operative word is “trying”), which has a few key components. But at least the skeleton of schedule is there, and that gives us some structure.

We’re doing a lot of baking, and I have it in my head that we will try to make croissants from scratch. Even our 7-year-old likes to get involved with scooping, measuring and mixing. This also means we’re doing a lot of dishes. Honestly, the dishes seem never-ending.

We’re starting a garden; by “starting,” I mean we built a garden structure to keep the ever-present deer out, and the kids had a lot of fun helping cut, screw, staple, pound and dig. We have grand plans.

My family is addicted to puzzles, which is a nice low-key thing to do together, and even the teenager will join in. And I know this will sound silly, but paint-by-number has also become a thing in our house – I am sure actual artists out there are rolling their eyes, but have pity on those of us with no talent who need an outlet. My 16-year-old took out my 30-plus-year-old guitar and has started trying to learn. I’m of no help, because I haven’t played in in 30-plus years.

Internet at our house in the country is not great, so screen time for our kids is helpfully limited by that. We are encouraging them to keep up with their friends on FaceTime when they can though; they are desperate for social interaction. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering how exclusively socializing online will affect their behavior in the long term. The number of Ph.D. theses that will come out of this unintentional social experiment is mind-boggling.

Q. What do you find special about the night sky, especially at a time like this?

A. How can anyone look at a dark night sky and not feel an overwhelming sense of awe?

For me, this sense of awe is a balm that helps to quiet my anxiety. Maybe it is the knowing that I am, and you are, part of something much bigger. Coming face-to-face with the universe is important to keep our hubris in check and put things in perspective.

I know that some people don’t particularly like being reminded of their relative insignificance, and I’ve received hate mail for bringing this to people’s attention. But the reality is that the universe is unfathomably huge, and we’ve just been hanging out on this tiny little speck for a cosmic blink of an eye. Nature plays the long game.

Q. Is there a silver lining in this situation, such as slowing down and reflecting more?

A. I wish things were slowing down and we had time to reflect. With my husband and [me] still trying to work full-time from home while juggling the kids, homeschooling and the pandemic, it is hard to find two minutes to rub together. But I am 100% not complaining. We are healthy, so far, and we both still have jobs.

I do see lots of silver linings, but I also recognize that my family has been relatively unscathed and I don’t want to trivialize the heartbreak and stress that so many people are facing right now. In the spirit of focusing on the positive, though, I am truly loving all of the family time, which is about as clichéd as it gets. My oldest child will be going off to college soon, so I am soaking in this time with her, and there is something about a pandemic that leads to family bonding. I also love that we are having to refocus on things that really matter and reprioritizing. I hope we can hold on to some of that mentality on the other side of this.

Kelsey Johnson’s Tips for Star Gazing

  • It will be truly dark by about 9 p.m. this month. If you live away from light pollution, you will have a much better view of the stars.
  • Wear or bring warm clothes. It gets much colder at night than you might expect.
  • Bring a pillow and blankets to lie down on so you’re at least sort of comfortable.
  • Bring bug spray, just in case. Swatting mosquitoes the whole time is just annoying.

What to Look for This Month

  • The constellation Leo is one of the most recognizable in the sky with its “backward question mark” at the front of the lion. Leo will be almost straight up around 10 p.m.
  • April 20-22 will be the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower, which can occasionally produce a good fireball. With no moon in the sky during that period, viewing conditions should be great.
  • You might also notice a bright “star” low on the western horizon after sunset. This is the planet Venus, which can be quite picturesque when there is a crescent moon near it at the end of April, so grab a camera and tripod if you have one.
  • Atlas is coming! A new comet was discovered late last year, which has been named Atlas (after the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System, which hardly rolls of the tongue). Don’t worry, Earth isn’t in danger. By the end of April, Atlas may be visible to the unaided eye above the northwestern horizon.

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