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Dark Skies, Bright Kids

Helping young students reach for the stars

During my summers as a teenager I would often pitch a tent in a dark field behind my house and spend much of the night star gazing. Sometimes I would try to focus on a single bright star, narrowing my focus until that single star dominated my awareness. I could never achieve this for more than a few brief moments, but when I did I had a tremendous feeling of being connected to the universe, of being part of something much bigger than myself.

It breaks my heart that some kids can grow up never knowing that feeling. That their view of the universe is blinded either by the harsh, manmade light associated with cities and suburbs, or simply by the weariness that can accompany poverty in many socioeconomically disadvantaged rural areas. I have to think that this loss can have a profound impact on the worldview they form: How can they ever really understand the majesty and scale of the universe of which they are a part?

I have often wondered what I could do to give that gift—that feeling of connection—to others. Ultimately, this is what motivates me as a professor, but reaching out to our community beyond the bounds of UVA is just as important to me.

It didn't take me long after coming to Charlottesville to learn that central Virginia is extremely fertile ground for astronomy outreach. Some of the darkest nighttime skies on the East Coast are in Albemarle County, and many are found in areas that are also some of the most disadvantaged.

This got me thinking: What if we tried to leverage the tremendous natural resource of dark skies in these rural locations to enhance science education?

Astronomy is a natural "gateway" science, with a high level of popular culture fascination (think Star Wars), amazing aesthetic appeal (Google "Milky Way"), and an undeniable "Wow!" factor (two words: Mars Rover). One can sneak an incredible amount of science into an astronomy activity without science-phobic students panicking at the thought of actually learning things like physics or chemistry.

My initial brainchild was to have an after-school astronomy club at one of the local rural schools. As I started to plan, however, I realized that if I wanted it to realize its full potential, it needed to be even broader.

Today, with the help of an army of volunteers from the UVA astronomy department, Dark Skies, Bright Kids (DSBK) is an intensive eight-week after-school club that rotates to a different school each semester. In addition, we host special astronomy days at other schools, visit classrooms with our portable planetarium and host family observing nights. DSBK volunteers have even created a bilingual astronomy picture book in an effort to reach out to Hispanic communities.

This is a time-intensive endeavor, but the commitment enables us to build meaningful relationships with the students and take learning to a deeper level than possible with just a single event.

Since the program's inception in 2009, DSBK has amassed more than 8,000 student contact hours. In 2012, it was awarded the "Programs That Work" distinction by the Virginia Math and Science Coalition, an alliance of education, corporate and public policy leaders.

But the best way we've found to measure whether DSBK is having an impact has been asking the students to draw a scientist at the beginning and end of the program. At the first session, the majority of students draw a stereotypical sketch of a white male with crazy hair wearing a white lab coat. At the program's end, we ask them to do the same thing. More often than not, the scientists begin to look a lot like the students themselves.

That fact alone is enough to keep the DSBK volunteers inspired, and it is why we continue to think of ways to broaden DSBK. We want kids of every race and class to have brighter futures that will not only include a love for science but that feeling, as they stare up at the night sky every now and then, that they are profoundly connected to the universe.

Kelsey Johnson has been an assistant professor of astronomy at UVA since 2005 and is the director of Dark Skies Bright Kids.