Greg Scheiderer plants cosmic seed to interest young people in astronomy

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Thursday, July 11, 2013

Greg Scheiderer hopes to inspire others to love astronomy the way his friends and peers inspired him. // Seattle Astronomy
Greg Scheiderer is the author of the blog Seattle Astronomy and a member of the Seattle Astronomical Society. But he didn’t always lead such a cosmically active life. While he was always interested in astronomy, he only became action-oriented and committed to it in his mid-40s. When he was younger, he had several separate experiences — seeds — that made him think, “Astronomy is rad,” (to paraphrase). He retained that sentiment throughout his early adult years, and one day it bloomed into the full-fledged hobby that he now enjoys and shares with others.

In this guest post, he raises the possibility that the “crisis of disinterest” in astronomy among younger people is not as real as it seems. Maybe most people — and not just the people who happen to be young at this particular historical moment — come to astronomy in a serious way when they’re older (and have more money and free time, which Sheiderer rightly points out as barriers to entry). Maybe young people are looking through telescopes on their own and not going to club meetings, so they’re not part of the census. Millions of people have downloaded apps that help them navigate the night sky on their own, deliver a different astrophotograph every day, and show them where to spot satellites overhead. As Greg Sheiderer’s own story illustrates, paths to astronomy may be circuitous and don’t necessarily plop everyone down in the same place.

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Much ink, many pixels, and a great deal of time and energy have been expended of late on the pressing challenge of getting the younger generation interested and participating in astronomy. Astronomy magazine ran an article on the topic in its February 2013 issue, and editor Dave Eicher recently blogged about it on “Dave’s Universe.” The Astronomical League devoted huge chunks of both the March and June issues of its magazine, Reflector, to the problem. As Astronomy readers know, the magazine is among the partners in the Astronomy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to spread interest and enthusiasm for the hobby, particularly among the younger generations.

All of this has me pondering the trajectory of my own interest in astronomy, considering how possible it really is for adults to get young people interested in anything, and wondering if the crisis of disinterest in science in general, and astronomy in particular, is real.

I write a blog called Seattle Astronomy. Persistent cloud cover in our city means there are more opportunities to write about the stars and planets than to actually observe them! The “About” page of the site (www.SeattleAstronomy.com) notes that I “grew up following Apollo and the race to the Moon, and [have] been a space and astronomy buff ever since.” I was 11 years old when humans first walked on the Moon — just old enough to appreciate the adventure and daring of the race to get there and too young to grasp the geopolitical implications of it all.

I still have my scrapbook of aerospace news clippings, most of them from the Seattle Times or Boeing News. I occasionally put some of my own creations into the scrapbook. One such item is a sketch and explanation of a “Moon probe.” Drawing has never been my strong suit, but the rocket nozzle on top of my probe bears some abstract resemblance to that of the NASA Lunar Orbiter, so I’m guessing that’s what I was trying to depict. My sweetie notes that I took special pains to point out the radio and television components of the probe, suggesting that this may have been a portent of my future interest and work in broadcasting. The drawing may be considered my first space and astronomy “post,” made at the age of 8.

Clearly, I was a space nut. There was some adult encouragement along the way. I subscribed to a series called the “Science Service Science Program” published by Nelson Doubleday. Every month, I received a new booklet on a science topic. The booklets were cool because they came with color photograph stickers that you licked and pasted into them — maybe the first “interactive” media. Once in a while, the subscription included a special bonus: a plastic model that you could assemble. I recall building a Redstone rocket with a Mercury capsule carrying an astronaut no more than a quarter-inch tall. Many of the booklets were about various topics of space and exploration, as the Space Race was the hot topic at the time. I no longer have any of the Science Service booklets in my possession. They might still be at my mother’s house; I envision them right next to the once-priceless collection of baseball cards, reduced to dust by 45 years in a hot/cold attic. Everything is available on Internet auction sites, though, and with a quick search I found quite a number of people selling booklets from the series. According to an ad I found, my dad, noted for his frugality, was shelling out a buck a month for my Science Service subscription.

Another vivid astronomy memory from when I was a little kid involved one of our neighbors, Pete Schultz, who built his own telescope. One night, he showed me Jupiter through it, and I spotted the planet’s bands and moons. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen! I don’t know how much observing Pete did over the years; we lived in Renton, a Seattle suburb, and the skies were probably never all that dark, though certainly they were better in the mid-’60s than they are now.

Although I had this interest in the cosmos, I made little effort to look at it. I could identify the major constellations — Orion seemed especially huge when he stood in the middle of our street — and would go out to look at the occasional lunar eclipse. I earned the astronomy merit badge when I was in Boy Scouts, which didn’t require anything approaching a Messier marathon. I note with approval that the current requirements for the badge include explaining what light pollution is and how it and air pollution affect astronomy.

Most of my observing attempts involved comets. I remember reading about Halley’s Comet in the Science Service booklets and thinking that its 1986 return would NEVER get here! Twenty years seems an eternity when you’re a little kid. After the long wait, I missed Halley, which was mostly visible in the Southern Hemisphere. I was in high school when Kohoutek (C/1973 E1) came around. The father of one of the guys in my scout troop had a telescope and set it up so we could have a look, but that was a major disappointment. Somehow comet West (C/1975 V1) slipped right by me. Later efforts to look at Hyakutake (C/1996 B2) and Hale-Bopp through binoculars were more successful and satisfying. When I was 11, we stumbled upon the Perseid meteor shower at a super-dark wilderness site; our scout troop coincidentally was on a backpacking trip during the peak of the shower, and it was spectacular. That was the extent of my astronomical observing.

I can pinpoint the moment that my interest reached the tipping point, when astronomy became a full-fledged hobby and I was transformed into a space and astronomy writer. It was 2003, the year of the great apparition of Mars. I was working as media relations manager at the University of Puget Sound, which had developed a new multidisciplinary course about Mars exploration, and I wrote an article about the course for Arches, the university magazine. After spending a few days hanging around the physics department with astronomy professor Bernie Bates, I suddenly found myself a member of the Tacoma Astronomical Society, which meets at the college. I sprung for an 8-inch Dobsonian from Orion and began spending many a late night out in the cold with it and the raccoons that wander through our backyard. My sweetie helped push me over the edge by giving me a copy of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide for my birthday that summer. It remains a valued resource.

That’s my story. Though I have been a total space geek for about as long as I can remember and was good at math and science in school, other interests prevailed. I wound up in a humanities field, majoring in broadcast journalism in college, though I took an introductory astronomy course to fulfill a science credit requirement. While I maintained a passing interest in astronomy over the years, it wasn’t until I was 45 that a great astronomical observing event and the opportunity to hang around with an interesting and enthusiastic academic combined to forge me into an active participant in the hobby. Adequate amounts of disposable income and spare time certainly helped.

So what can we do to get “the kids” interested in astronomy? I’m not certain that anything overt will work. Few tweens, teens, and 20-somethings want to be told what to do, and frankly it’s hard to imagine them approaching the hobby in the way we do as adults. While lectures about galaxy and star formation, detailed talks about techniques of astrophotography, or astronomy club slideshows about building an observatory are enjoyable, those activities sometimes lack the WOW factor. Looking at the stars is more fun than going to meetings — I think I can prove it! I expect many young folks may well be using telescopes and reading about astronomy, which may not translate into the desire to join the local astronomical society.

The best thing we can do to interest young people, or anyone, in astronomy is to show them something amazing. Give them a look through a telescope or binoculars or point out a beautiful naked-eye object. Comet ISON may well provide a historic opportunity to do that this fall. Many folks will be indifferent to what they see. But you never know when you might be planting a seed. If the seed germinates, fertilize it with information and fun materials. Stoke curiosity, and provide opportunity. The “Science Service Science Program” is not being published any more, but the Astronomy Foundation has excellent resources, and the NASA Space Place is a great place to start for younger kids. Any young space nut would appreciate a subscription to Astronomy.

Pete Schultz, the neighbor who planted one of my astronomy seeds, passed away back in March, just a few days after his 77th birthday. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I don’t know if he remembered giving me my first look through a telescope. But it’s something I’ll never forget, and I hope he knows on some sort of cosmic level that his simple, generous gesture made a big difference to a little neighbor kid. When my “star stuff” is released back into the universe, I hope that I will have given at least one person that kind of fond memory or inspiration. The seed may not blossom for a half-century, and I may not be here to enjoy the flower. But its sweetness won’t be wasted.

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