Kids Explore the Universe at Red Oaks Astronomy Program

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(Crystal A. Proxmire, Nov. 27, 2015, republished Dec. 2, 2015)

Madison Heights, MI – A chilly autumn night was spent learning about the stars at the Red Oaks Nature Center in Madison Heights on Nov. 20. Children and their parents enjoyed a full evening of star-struck learning, packed with activities designed to capture their imaginations and teach them about the universe.

The families divided into two groups: Stars and Planets, giving the kids more individualized attention from the presenters and the Red Oaks staff.

The Planets started the night by crawling into an igloo-like inflatable dome set up in one of the NewWay_Jazz_Tuesdaysmeeting rooms. Fans kept the portable planetarium up as the curious kids crawled in through a tunnel and sat cross-legged in a circle with the dome slightly wobbly around them.

The kids were mostly little boys six to 12 years old. They listened in awe as Benjamin Prowse of Berkley sat in the middle, manning the projector and telling a Native American legend about how the stars came into being. Prowse dimmed the lights slowly so everyone’s eyes could adjust. As he did, he spoke of how the animals on earth did not get along, so the gods covered the planet with a blanket to block out the light of the sun. The darkness forced the animals to work together and as each one used their strengths to try and remove the blanket, it was the tiny little hummingbird who finally found the solution. The hummingbird flew way up into the sky and used her beak to poke holes in the blanket. The light that shone through became the stars. The gods were pleased at the cooperation, so they decided to lift the blanket part of the day and give the animals light again.

Stories like this were also used to identify groups of stars and Schrock2015_SmilingFace_adtie them to memorable stories. The constellations helped mark time as well as with navigation. The stars were projected on the dome while Prowse explained the mythology behind them. He talked about the science too, quizzing the youngsters about the distance from the earth to the sun, how fast the earth rotates, why there are seasons and why some stars are brighter than others.

“I’m so excited for you guys, because there’s so much news coming out about the universe,” Prose said. “We are always learning more and you can explore space more than any other generation has been able to.”

The Star Lab is over 30 years old. When the fans are off the whole thing folds into a duffel bag so Prowse and others who work for Oakland County Parks can take it to various parks and schools, and even birthday parties.

After thePOWELLad_01 planetarium demonstration, the kids went outside to the parking lot, where volunteers from Oakland Astronomy Club had telescopes set up. David Holt talked about the telescopes and helped the children take a peek at the fuzzy-looking moon. The night was cloudy, but the view did show the shading of the craters and the brightness of the reflected sunlight.

“I’ve been viewing since I was 13 and I always want to get kids interested in astronomy. Oakland Astronomy has an educational mission,” Holt said.

Back inside the kids got a more up-close look at the moon – holding an actual piece of it in their hands. Mark Jeffery, also of the Oakland Astronomy Club, gave a presentation on meteorites. Spread across the table was his collection of space-originated items, including meteorites, a moon rock and even a slice of rock from the planet Mars.Pledge_side_blue

Jeffery shares his collection with school groups and other educational groups to help spread the love of science among young people. “It gives me something to talk about,” he said.

Michael and Denise LoBue brought their children Mary and Anthony to Red Oaks for the presentation. “As a kid my neighbor had a telescope, and I remember my dad would wake me up to go look at the moon,” Michael said. “This is fantastic. It’s a good learning experience and I hope it’s something they’ll remember that we did.”

The Red Oaks Nature center does one astronomy show per season, which changes every time. They also offer a plethora of educational opportunities including Field Trips, family nature programs, exhibits including live native animals, an auditorium/large classroom and meeting areas.

Learn more at http://www.destinationoakland.com/parksandtrails/parks/RedOaks/Pages/NatureCenter.aspx.

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