Get some dirt. Add some dry ice, corn syrup, and water. Then pour in some ammonia and mix all the parts together. Follow these steps to create a replica of a comet! The ammonia replicates gases found in the atmospheres of outer planets, the corn syrup corresponds to the complex organic molecules found in outer space, the dirt substitutes for the dirt and dust in space, and the dry ice freezes the water so you end up with a dirty snowball.
This is just one of the activities that Astronomy Live!, a graduate student group at UCLA, does with children to teach them about astronomy. Founded just two years ago by Physics and Astronomy graduate students Kristin Kulas and Gregory Mace, Astronomy Live! aims to educate the public about astronomy. The group strives to foster an interest in science in general, especially early on, in hopes that it may develop into a future career.
Astronomy Live! provides its services for free, a huge benefit to schools, particularly for those that have tight finances. By word of mouth from teacher to teacher, the geography of schools that Astronomy Live! serves has expanded greatly within just two years, including locations as far from UCLA as Manhattan Beach and Simi Valley.
For Kulas, the best part about her work with Astronomy Live! occurs after a planetarium show, seeing “the kids whose hands just shoot up and they ask, ‘What about this?’ and you know that they could talk for an hour asking questions about all sorts of things.”
The graduate students of Astronomy Live! also coordinate the annual “Exploring Your Universe” event here at UCLA. This large-scale event is a collaboration among several departments and entities on the UCLA campus: Physics and Astronomy, Earth and Space Sciences, CNSI, and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, to name a few. Taking place at UCLA, “Exploring Your Universe” is a program reaching out to all ages of the community in education about sciences such as Astronomy, Physics, Atmospheric Sciences, and Environmental Sciences through interactive booths.
So why learn about Astronomy? Mace’s passion for astronomy and the importance of learning about this field is evident: “It’s easy to get disconnected from the night sky in LA, but it’s full of many wonders; study astronomy if you want to know about human history before written history; astronomy is the history of men back through the age of the universe and part of knowing our origins before the earth even existed.”
Kulas and Mace attribute the great work that Astronomy Live! has been able to accomplish to the graduate students within the group who devote their time, as well as students of the Undergraduate Astronomical Society who volunteer at Astronomy Live!’s large-scale activities. They are grateful for the support of the Physics and Astronomy Department staff and faculty, including Diana Thatcher, Assistant to the Chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department.
For more information about their upcoming “Exploring Your Universe” event, or the other Astronomy Live! services, please visit its website. Also, be sure to visit the UCLA planetarium website to find out more about free weekly shows.