U.Va. Astronomer, Students Create Book on Universe for Schoolkids

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Fariss Samarrai:

September 1, 2010 — Last year, University of Virginia astronomer Kelsey Johnson and a team of student volunteers established an astronomy club, called "Dark Skies, Bright Kids," in rural southern Albemarle County elementary schools.

They are seeking to spark early interest in astronomy among children who live far enough away from bright city lights to actually get a great view of the night sky. They hold weekly after-school meetings, and, every other Friday night, set up telescopes on school grounds for family-oriented sky gazing.

The schools there have a large Hispanic population, so Johnson and her team – drawn mostly from the astronomy department in U.Va.'s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences – also are reaching out to students whose native language is Spanish.

One of the Hispanic students last year, a third-grade girl, was exceedingly shy, and Johnson wanted to engage her in discussions about the stars and planets. She asked for help from one of her student volunteers, Laura Jackson, a Spanish major who graduated in May.

Jackson, an astronomy minor who likes to create art, began making paintings for the girl of the planets and sun and labeled them in Spanish and English: Earth/la Tierra; moon/la luna; Mars/Marte; and on through the catalog of objects in our solar system and beyond.

"Laura just went nuts and made some incredible artwork," Johnson said. "It was successful and a lot of fun and we didn't want it to just sit and collect dust."

The result, though nobody initially expected it, is a colorful little book for third-graders, "Snapshots of the Universe," or "Instantáneas del Universo."

"This grew beyond our wildest dreams," Johnson said. "It was tremendously popular with the schoolkids and their teachers. It's a labor of love, and a completely volunteer effort."

With 19 whimsical paintings of heavenly bodies that tell, in the first person, who they are in English and Spanish, young students are able to learn a little about astronomy and, perhaps, a little of both languages.

The text is written by Joleen Carlberg, an astronomy Ph.D. candidate, who managed the book project from fledgling concept to flourishing book.

"I always wanted to do some writing, but never had an outlet," she said. "Then this wonderful project came along."

Other students stepped in with assorted talents. Andre Wong (a master's student in astronomy) did the layout; Guillermo Damke (an astronomy Ph.D. candidate) worked with Jackson on the translation; Rachael Beaton (another astronomy Ph. D. candidate) handled electronic formatting of images. More students helped in other ways.

After numerous revisions, checking and re-checking the Spanish text with native speakers from Chile, Mexico and Spain, and consultation with children's book author Jeff Bennett, Johnson stapled together a few hundred draft copies of the book and took them to a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

"They were wildly popular," she said. "We had people coming back for extra copies. We knew then that we wanted to get this book published for wide distribution."

Johnson is hoping to "go big-time" and publish thousands of copies for free distribution to every public school library and third-grade classroom in Virginia.

She currently is seeking a $25,000 grant from Pepsi, through its Pepsi Refresh educational grant program, which allows the public to vote on projects for funding. (To vote, click here; you can vote up to 10 times per day through the month of September). Johnson also is seeking other funding sources, which would allow her, she hopes, to distribute the book more broadly in Virginia, and maybe even nationally.

The "challenging and rewarding" part of the project for Carlberg was writing succinctly, factually and clearly for young minds that are coming to astronomy without much previous context.

"I wanted to explain the universe figuratively and whimsically," she said. "The text has to be short, interesting and exciting; it has to teach something, it has to be accurate and not give misconceptions about the science. I had to pick words that kids can understand, and I had to explain things that aren't very intuitive."

But she said that trying to think like a third-grader "wasn't as hard as it should have been." Of course, working as a volunteer with third-graders helped her to know the kinds of questions they ask, and how they perceive objects and come to understandings of the way things work. Children are, in fact, little scientists, she said, always asking questions, always seeking answers.

"We want astronomy and all of the sciences to be accessible to everyone," Johnson noted, "including, importantly, underrepresented populations of our society that are more socio-economically challenged. The big picture point of this is to get kids excited about science, how fun it is, and to realize that a career in science is a viable career path for them."

"Astronomy is a great hook for turning kids on to science," Carlberg said. "Kids can look up at the night sky and see a lot of really interesting things out there, in our solar system, in our galaxy, in the universe, there's some really cool things going on."

-- by Fariss Samarrai