The “Missing” Young Astronomers

One of the reasons I am so passionate about astronomy is that it is almost always associated with something positive. This can take the form of looking at a beautiful object through the eyepiece of a telescope, or learning of a fascinating discovery about a planet, star, or galaxy. So it saddens me when I see so few young people at amateur astronomy events and read articles about the lack of American university students who are majoring in science, math, and engineering.

There are probably many reasons for these trends, and not being an expert in sociology, I can only offer a few speculations. These days kids have so many things competing for their time and attention — a zillion TV stations, the Internet, video games, sporting events, etc. etc. — that they have little time for hobbies like astronomy. Also, in our celebrity-obsessed contemporary culture, science and astronomy are not “cool,” and interested students risk being branded as “geeks” and “nerds” by their peers. I think another big problem is that most kids in urban and suburban areas never really experience a truly dark night sky. The washed-out, light-polluted sky they see contains so few stars that it hardly inspires the sense of awe and wonder that inspired the generations of yesteryear.

I know that amateur astronomers are trying to reach out to children in a big way. I’m a proud member of the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston (ATMoB), the largest club in the Boston area. The club holds so many school star parties that any new school that wants to sign up must schedule its party in the winter. ATMoB members are maxed out, and I can’t imagine them being able to do any more than they are already doing to reach out to young people. Yet at a monthly meeting a year ago, several members lamented that the school star parties didn’t seem to have the intended effect of attracting young members. I suspect that other clubs share similar experiences.

These concerns were on my mind as I traveled to a remote mountainous area in West Virginia this past weekend to attend the Almost Heaven Star Party (AHSP), organized by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Even though we didn’t enjoy crystal clear skies Friday and Saturday night, I had a great time and met a lot of wonderful people. Best of all, I was delighted to see quite a few young people in attendance, and they seemed genuinely interested in astronomy, and happy to be there.

In particular, I met a high-school-age girl named Esther who attended my presentation about NASA’s Cassini mission. I saw her furiously taking notes the entire time I was speaking. Afterward, she peppered me with questions about astronomy and other areas of science, taking notes as I replied. She was like a sponge, constantly soaking up knowledge. Later that evening, while watching a gentle rain come down, I met a 12-year-old boy named Ian who says his goal in life is to become a radio astronomer who studies pulsars and quasars. As Ian, his father, and I discussed astronomy, I was totally blown away by his advanced state of astronomical knowledge. How many 12-year-olds know what a magnetar is? Ian knew all about them.

So I came away from AHSP with renewed optimism about the future of astronomy. Yes, there are kids out there who feel intense passion for astronomy, and they need to be nurtured and encouraged, so they know that no matter what anyone else says, astronomy is “cool” (make that very cool) because it touches on the deepest questions about humanity’s relationship to the universe. Maybe we’ll lose some of these kids to peer pressure as they go through high school and college. But I bet we’ll get a lot of them back later in life.