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Getting to the Point

Paul Kohlmiller

These pictures show students doing one of my favorite first-visit-of-the-year activities. They plot the average high temperatures for various cities, some in the northern hemisphere and some in the southern hemisphere. The stark difference in the plots are used to prove this point: the seasonal temperature changes can’t be due to differences in the Sun/Earth distance because part of the Earth has winter at the same time that another part has summer. Once we prove that the seasons aren’t caused by distance, then it is easier to explain how the Earth’s tilt is the key factor. Photos by the author.


What’s the point? Is the purpose of being an amateur astronomer just to learn things for ourselves? Is it to satisfy our greedy eyeballs by catching million year old photons? I like to think that we also do something that goes beyond our own personal universe. The Houge and school star parties are a great example of this. But I like to talk about another way to spread our starry interest: Project ASTRO.

For 6 years I have been the visiting astronomer at a school in San Jose. My teacher, Jennifer, has been great. You can translate that to mean: she lets me do what I want. At my last visit for the school year (I do 6-8 visits per year) the class gives me homemade cards thanking me. I’ll share some of those with you.

When you become part of Project ASTRO you are given training and a small mountain of ideas that you can do with your class. Being the type that doesn’t take orders all that well, I come up with my own activities. One small idea is I tell the story of James Lick, how he couldn’t marry his girlfriend, how me made money in South America building pianos and how he ended up in San Francisco during the gold rush. Since I’m just talking through the story, I bribe the students into listening by giving them a piece of individually wrapped chocolate. The connection, my big reveal at the end, is that Lick is the one who convinced Ghiradelli to move from Peru to San Francisco. One student said “You taught us what {James Lick] had to go through just to get with a girl.” Another said, “I also liked the James Lick story because I never knew James Lick was a person.” I’m glad I was able to clear that up. Another student missed my point, “The activity I liked the most was when we were learning about the person who made a type of chocolate.” Or “I learned that James was one of the first ones to make chocolate.” Not really. But I did get comments like ““The James Lick chocolate story was exciting because we got to know James Lick’s life and what he did.”

Another activity based on something we did during Project ASTRO training was designing alien life forms using clay. “[Making aliens] was my favorite because we got to use playdoo(sic) and work with our friends to make ideas for alien parts.”

Comet making is a great activity that we do once each year. “[Comet making] was one of my most unique and interesting experiences.” High praise or a person with very low expectations, I don’t know which. “The way [comet making] was exciting because we were using dry ice.” The dry ice was the point of interest for another student, “The thing I liked about the comets is I liked when the comets were smoking.” One person almost remembered the entire comet/meteor recipe, “I liked making the meteor out [of] dry ice, water, corn starch (actually corn syrup), and dirt.” Other students recalled the strong smell from the ammonia that we used.

Another activity that we learned during Project ASTRO training was to make a model of the solar system using toilet paper to determine the representative distances between each planet. “It was fun making a mess with the toilet paper.”

Now I fully understand that the students were at least partially coerced into making the cards by the teacher. But apparently the only requirement was to write about one thing. So I thought it was interesting that one student almost covered every visit. “It was fun when we did the alien, comets, light waves/sound waves, James Lick/chocolate, light refracting glasses, saw rainbows when looking at light, temperature graph, toilet paper solar system, colored “NASA” picture – pixels, and also glasses to look at sun.”

So what is my point? I just want to make it clear how the amateur astronomer payment system works. At a star party you get paid in exclamations, “Wow!”, “Cool!”, “Is that real?” In Project ASTRO the payback might come in comments like the ones listed here or the ones that you get from the students themselves. They come back a year or two later and say “Remember me, Mister Kohlmiller?”. And if Jennifer is there she helps me out, “Jeff was in the class last year”. “Hey Jeff, how’s school going this year?”

There are reasons for not doing Project ASTRO. The visits require an hour or two. If you can’t spare the time there is nothing I can say. But every other objection can be countered. You don’t know all the answers to the questions they might ask? Say so, tell what you do know, then watch the ASP video for handling these questions. Kids scare you? Well, they’re kids and you’re an adult. You are most likely to be teaching fifth graders which is a good age: not yet steeped in attitude.

Each year Project ASTRO tries to create teacher-astronomer partnerships. Some years they have more teachers than astronomers and sometimes the other way around. This year it seems astronomers are needed and San Jose is a particular area. If you are interested, find out more at .


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