Looking at the March 8 Astronomy Picture of the Day, Solar Eclipse Shoes in the Classroom, in preparation for this blog post brought back a vivid memory that I hadn’t thought about in years. Like the students in the photograph, I witnessed a partial solar eclipse in high school. We poked pinholes in sheets of paper to watch the sun’s projection change shape against a second sheet of paper without burning our eyes. Spots of sunlight filtering through the tree leaves shrunk to half circles, then banana slivers as the light took on a golden hue that was uncharacteristic for the middle of the day.
Any time I feel anxiety over science programming, it’s helpful to remember how easy it can be. It doesn’t need to involve something as amazing as an eclipse. It doesn’t even need to be “programming,” it could simply mean asking teens, “Hey look at this cool/weird/mysterious thing, any guesses what it is?” Over the past year, the teens that visit my library have been entertained by a chunk of evaporating dry ice, helium-filled balloons, Pop Rocks, and vegetable oil + water + food coloring + alka-seltzer tablets in a bottle.
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, one of my science heroes, gives advice to children who want to know what they can do to help the earth. Explore things, he tells them, do fun things even when it might annoy your parents. His advice to adults is to get out of their way. Kids are naturally curious about the world, and adults have a responsibility to not suppress that curiosity. Bill Nye, another science hero, encourages people of all ages to ask questions about the world around them (with the disclaimer to be aware of social interactions while doing so).
Library staff generally take pride in answering patrons’ questions, and I think many of us feel anxiety over questions we don’t know how to answer. Instead of feeling anxious, we can encourage patrons’ natural curiosity by inviting them to make their own hypotheses, and introducing them to resources where they might find the answers.
Any of us can wonder about the universe; Anyone can ask how and why; anyone can observe what’s happening around us. Citizen science, scientific research performed by volunteers, is a real thing that any of us can do at any time. For an addictive example, check out Galaxy Zoo, a project to classify the millions of distant galaxies that have been observed in the universe.
Maybe we’ll never find the answers to all their questions, but engaging teens with amazing discoveries (people grow taller in space, comets stink) and stories (women are preparing to visit the Moon, women are preparing to visit Mars) whether on social media, as part of a display, or in conversation signals to teens that it’s okay to keep asking.
The Hub – Scientifically funny nonfiction
The Hub – New Nonfiction Science for Teens