I love National Public Radio! Listening to NPR on my way to the office in the morning I often hear about things that are fascinating and about which I knew nothing before.
This morning there was a piece on a new astronomical event. Apparently, in 1979, a star was observed exploding into a Super Nova. But this was no ordinary event. It seems the explosion was large enough that it may have produced a black hole. And evidence suggests that this hole has, in the last thirty years, consumed an amount of mass equal to that of our entire planet, which, as these things go, is a lot! And this seems to be the very first time astronomers have been able to witness a black hole being born in a normal Super Nova. Way cool!
And this got me to thinking about, of course, school assemblies. Kids love this stuff. They love the stars, and astronomy. And aspects of astronomy and earth science are all through the state standards in most states. And yet there is often a disconnect between the innate curiosity of kids in this regard, and the teaching of the subject in school.
Not long ago I was out an a Boy Scout outing with my son’s scout troop and we had with us a young scout from an inner city neighborhood. That light, after all the young guys had turned in, but when the adults were still up chatting around a small fire, this young man got up to see what was going on. It was a clear night and by chance he looked up and was instantly transfixed by the sheer number and brilliance of the stars that were visible that night. Growing up in the city, he had had no idea of the number of stars to be seen on a clear dark night outside the lights of the city. He must have stood there for a good 45 minutes just lost in wonder.
It was a great teachable moment and we used it to point out a few of the better known constellations. It was a great moment!
But many young people never get that opportunity, and the context within a classroom is often so disconnected as to leave the students struggling to find the passion.
Yet they need to learn about the universe as this area is directly specified in the educational standards of most states. Almost every state has sections of their state standards throughout elementary and middle school that relate directly to our solar system, astronomy and the stars.
A field trip to a planetarium is great for this. However, many schools are not near a permanent facility, and often the transportation costs involved in a field trip are prohibitive. This is where school assembly programs can be of enormous value to a school. Various companies provide schools the alternative of hosting a visit from a traveling planetarium. In these cases the dome is usually inflatable and sets up in the gymnasium for the day. Far from a simply entertaining distraction, programs such as these cater directly to educational standards, and do so in a fascinating, kid-friendly manner that encourages excitement and a desire to learn more.
There are various options available in this area. In some cases the program is a simple rental of equipment where the school must provide a trained operator, usually a teacher who knows how to use the equipment. Sometimes the unit provides a taped narrative which functions automatically once the program begins, like watching a movie. However, the best option is when the company sends a live professional presenter along with the planetarium so the presentation is live, adaptable and thoroughly polished, and can answer questions from students as the program proceeds.
There are also different options in capacity. Inflatable planetariums come in different sizes, and this is important because it affects how many presentations it will take to get all of your students through. Some units are small and will only handle a class at a time. If you wish to include your entire school, try to look for a company with a dome large enough that it will hold 80-100 students at a time. That way you will be able to get an average school of 300-500 through in just one day. Otherwise you will undoubtedly be faced with hosting the program for multiple days which is not only costly, but can be very disruptive to the schedule of a school.
Finally, look for up to date technology. Older star projectors were analogue and basically comprised of a canister of film over a light bulb. While serviceable at the time, such systems are primitive and can actually be acquired now in some toy stores. Newer digital systems provide a vastly superior program and feature advanced computer generated graphics.
Whichever way you go, your students will benefit, and their test scores should rise correspondingly. And one day, should one of the students happen to be traveling in a car with an NPR addicted Dad, and should they happen to hear the same report this Dad heard this morning, it may well be the student who says ” Hey, Dad, turn that up. That’s the thing we heard about in school” And that is cool!