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Learning in Action at the University of Virginia

Showing Local Kids the Fun in Science: Dark Skies Bright Kids

By: 
Abygail Waggoner

DSBK volunteers after Star Party 2021 at Albemarle Ciderworks. Star Party is an annual event, traditionally every September, where we provide constellation tours, set up telescopes, and do planetarium showsDSBK volunteers after Star Party 2021 at Albemarle Ciderworks. Star Party is an annual event, traditionally every September, where we provide constellation tours, set up telescopes, and do planetarium shows.

Between the ages of 8 and 11, many children begin to lose interest in science; this is especially true for under-represented groups within STEM, such as women and minorities, who are traditionally not exposed to the "fun" side of science at a young age. Unfortunately, this reality is reflected in the demographics of professional astronomers in the United States, where 88% of astronomers are men and 86% are white (according to the United States 2019 database). While there are many ways we can work to improve diversity in astronomy, a volunteer-led organization out of the University of Virginia seeks to do so by introducing hands-on activities to underserved children in Virginia.

Dark Skies, Bright Kids (DSBK) is led primarily by astronomy graduate students at UVA. Their goal is to expose children to the fun side of science and astronomy by launching rockets, providing planetarium tours (in a portable planetarium!), making comets, and many other hands-on activities. A volunteer favorite is a series of "wiggle time" activities, where we play an active game inspired by an astronomical concept, such as Jupiter Dodgeball. In this activity, two players become Earth and Jupiter, and all other players are asteroids. Jupiter must protect Earth from the asteroids (dodgeballs), while the asteroids try to get Earth out.

DSBK volunteer with telescopeDSBK volunteer Hannah Richstein calibrates a telescope in preparation for Star Party.

DSBK has been active for 12 years, where activities were converted to a virtual format during 2020 and 2021. Since the beginning, DSBK has held or participated in over 341 events and reached over 24,000 children in Virginia. DSBK participates in a number of annual events, such as KidVention with the Virginia Discovery Museum and Star Party at Albemarle Ciderworks, but our predominant event is a two-month long after-school club. Each semester, DSBK visits a different elementary school in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, where each week a new astronomy concept is introduced. This program is designed to lay the foundation for a life-long interest in science and to remove any misconceptions about science and scientists.

In addition to DSBK-led events, volunteers have created Activity Sheets (in English and Spanish) explaining how to do our most fun activities step-by-step. These activities are available for anyone with an interest in astronomy on our webpage at www.darkskiesbrightkids.com. DSBK is primarily a volunteer-led organization, so all forms of aid are welcome. If you are interested in volunteering with DSBK (no astronomy background necessary), or if you are interested in donating to DSBK, please reach out and visit our webpage.

Abygail Waggoner
About the Author: 

Abygail Waggoner is a fourth-year chemistry graduate student at UVA. She is one of the many volunteers that makes DSBK possible.