Invite an Alien to Astronomy Night

Article excerpt

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Dozens of inflatable aliens gathered recently at my middle school to sponsor our first school-wide Astronomy Night. With an estimated attendance of over 500, my eighth-grade students hosted over a dozen activity-rich sessions designed to entertain and educate students and their families about the wonders of the solar system and beyond. From the Galilean moons of Jupiter, to the farthest reaches of our galaxy, space science intrigued learners of all ages and was the perfect theme for our family night event.

A couple of years ago, as part of a unit on space science, I invited the local astronomy club to my school for an evening of stargazing. This was an incredible experience for my students, and the eight or nine telescopes that the club brought were sufficient to show students the wonders of the Orion Nebula and details of lunar craters, and other diverse celestial treasures. Our Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) remembered that I had arranged the activity, and two years later asked if I would sponsor a similar night for the entire school. I was hesitant at first; I couldn't imagine having enough telescopes to adequately accommodate the potential number of students and their families that might show up. The event was scheduled despite this, but was postponed twice and eventually cancelled due to inclement weather. Although I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment, I decided that if such an event was to work at the school level, it would have to immerse participants in the enterprise of astronomy in more ways than just telescope viewing. This event would need to have multiple inquiry-rich activities to complement the stargazing.

This year I submitted a proposal to my PTSA. I would be willing to host an Astronomy Night, but I wanted to make sure there were indoor activities in case of bad weather or large crowds. I asked for funding to rent the Starlab planetarium from the local nature center, and a small budget for hands-on activities. Initially, the idea was to have the portable planetarium, stargazing with the local astronomy club, and a make-and-take session. But like many good ideas, this one began to snowball.

The event eventually resulted in a PTSA dinner, 14 concurrent sessions, and a coordinated band concert. Our shopping list included 1,200 Oreos, over 1,000 candy stars, 150 diffraction peepholes, hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars, popcorn, over 360 feet of PVC pipe, a dozen shower curtains, 300 marshmallows, 500 ziplock sandwich bags, several movie posters, blow-up planets, and two dozen inflatable, five-foot aliens. Our PTSA sold over 400 meals and we estimated attendance at over 500. With the level of support of my students, colleagues, and PTSA, our first school-wide Astronomy Night was an enjoyable experience.

Immediately after getting administrative approval and PTSA funding for the event, I enlisted the help of my eighth-grade students. They had recently finished an astronomy unit and eagerly agreed to share what they learned in class by hosting sessions for the event. Students signed up to work in teams of two to four to prepare for, organize, and present sessions. I provided an idea or resource to use as a foundation activity and encouraged them to jazz it up and give it some zing. A majority of the groups decided to begin their sessions with a short PowerPoint introduction, followed by a modeling activity, and finished with an inquiry-rich activity. Student sessions included phases of the Moon, planetary real estate, spectroscopy, the life line of stars, and a session on discovering extrasolar planets. Two of our technology labs were used by students to demonstrate free downloadable software and online astronomy websites. A third lab was used to demonstrate how a star clock works and also for a celestial timekeeping game. An LCD projector was used to show a segment from the Smithsonian's film Cosmic Voyage. All of these sessions were prepared and presented by students. …