Guest Blog: Inspiring the Next Generation of Astronomers Through Story

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Wednesday, March 07, 2018

By Amy Jackson

Cassandra and the Night Sky is a story meant to inspire future generations of stargazers to look up and imagine. // Photo Credit: Amy Jackson & Donna Paredes

What do a princess, a teapot, a swan and a scorpion have in common? They happen to be more related than you think! Turn on your imagination and read on. My name is Amy Jackson. I am the author of a new children’s book called Cassandra and the Night Sky, written to inspire our youngest learners to go outside at night, look up and wonder.  

Curiosity and wonder

Before we lived in busy cities with our sky aglow by bright lights, we lived a more primitive life engrossed in hunting or gathering our food and cooking our meals on open fires. When our fires went out, we looked up to the heavens and pondered our existence. We noticed bright lights in the sky and made patterns from them and told stories about them. Eventually, we made stories about the figures and shapes we saw among the multitude of stars above. We learned these stories and passed them down from generation to generation. Our innate curiosity as a human race inspired us to start to explain the heavens above. This simple act is where the oldest science — astronomy — began.

Our day-to-day existence has definitely gone through some changes since then. We now have cars to move us around. We go to grocery stores to shop for our food. We are far removed from the times I described. We no longer live an outside life, surrounded by the natural world throughout our day. Although our culture has dramatically changed, one thing remains the same: our curiosity. How do we inspire our children, who are growing up in a new era of electricity and digitization, to be curious about our oldest science? How do we inspire them to go outside at night and look up? For astronomy in particular, this is where story comes into play. Let’s begin where our ancestors began so many years ago — with a simple story. Next comes a simple observation that spawns curiosity, which then spawns a search for understanding. This is the root-level act of doing science.

Photo Credit: Amy Jackson & Donna Paredes

I have enjoyed working with kids and adults for over 20 years, teaching both in the classroom and informally for my observational astronomy classes. I have noticed that while adults are interested in specifically learning something new, kids are full of wonder, inspiration, excitement and big imaginations.   

When we become adults, we tend to leave our innate curiosity behind and get stuck on learning facts. We focus on what is right and what is wrong. We want exactness. There is little room for wonder and the magic of the unknown.

Every astronomer — and every scientist for that matter — was once a young child filled with wonder for the natural world around her or him. But they didn’t let go of their wonder. They held onto it and made it the foundation of their life’s work. If you are a human being, it is your birthright to be a scientist. You have a natural ability to observe and learn about the universe around you. Thank goodness we are naturally curious, creative and imaginative! Wonder is the place where we all begin. Seeing the largest telescopes ever built, our space program evolve, or SpaceX launching the most powerful rocket of all time (this past month) is exciting!

A new star story

I grew up in Houston around NASA and the space program. Since I was nine, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was inspired to learn science by seeing astronauts on extravehicular activity (EVAs), seeing shuttle launches and being inspired by the space program and the excitement of exploration. I went to Space Camp in the 8th grade. My sense of wonder drew me to my choice to major in physics in college.

Photo Credit: Amy Jackson & Donna Paredes

It will come as no surprise to you that kids inspired me to write Cassandra and the Night Sky. I helped facilitate an astronomy camp for kids a while back. On one afternoon, after watching a constellation tour in the mobile planetarium, I gave the students a blank star field — one of the many wonderful educational astronomy activities from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific — and asked them to make their own constellations and write their own star stories. They thoroughly enjoyed sharing the figures and shapes they made and their own unique stories. The kids at the astronomy camp inspired me to create my own story. I tested the new story out on the campers during the nighttime star party and telescope learning session we had that night. As time went on, I told the story over and over again to audiences, refined it and realized it would be a beautiful children’s book. I asked Donna Paredes, my mother and an incredible artist, to illustrate it.

Published by Bright Sky Press, Cassandra and the Night Sky is about a brave girl who grows up in a land without stars. She stumbles upon the night sky, thought to be stolen by an evil king, and courageously brings it back for all to enjoy. This children’s fiction book plays off the well-known Greek constellations so people can use any star finder to find the characters in the story in the night sky. Cassandra, the main character, is known as Cassiopeia the Queen; the swan in the story is Cygnus the Swan; the scorpion in the story is Scorpius the Scorpion; and the teapot in the story is Sagittarius the Archer. One parent approached me at an event and said, “My daughter went outside after we read your book to look for Cassandra!” The first time I heard that, I felt like I had won the lottery. 

 

Photo Credit: Amy Jackson

Amy Jackson is an astronomy educator for Reimers Observatory at Travis County Milton Reimers Ranch Park and for the Austin Independent School District mobile planetarium. She is the founder and director of Starry Sky Austin and a 2017 ambassador for the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program.

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