Stargazers

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Mobile observatory shows kids the stars and energizes a California club.

Story by Steven Hadt • Photos by Tracey Clark

Kids point out craters on the moon. A few of them ask why some stars look red and others seem blue. Some of the kids don’t want to leave the mobile observatory when their turn ends. The scene makes Stephanie Tanton smile, knowing her club is helping children learn.

“The mayor called us a shining example of a community organization making an impact in the community,” Tanton says.

Tanton and other members of the Kiwanis Club of Mission Viejo, California, helped cut the ribbon this past April on a new mobile observatory, a 12-foot trailer that travels to elementary and intermediate schools throughout Orange County. It’s operated by Science Heads, a local organization supported by the 28-member Kiwanis club.

The US$15,000 mobile observatory is proving to be quite a star itself. After budget cuts left many community schools without equipment or resources, the observatory supplements classroom work with hands-on astronomy activities.

“For many students, this is the first time looking through a telescope,” says Richard Stember, Science Heads executive director. “We’re here to emphasize hands-on, more interactive learning. … Schools just don’t have these tools available to them.”

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Through the 11-inch telescope, students can see all the planets in our galaxy, stars in others, the Orion Nebula and the cloud of gas where new stars are forming today.

The trailer also features software used by NASA to track the objects in space. Plus, there’s a 3D display where kids interact with the stars.

“We do this for the love of sharing STEM,” Stember says. “STEM is a curriculum based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The club’s support and participation is a godsend. They played a key role in getting this project done.”

The Mission Viejo club benefits from this partnership too, with a renewed energy among members.

“We hadn’t had a new member in almost two years,” Tanton says. “In January, we changed what we were doing. We increased our activities to support STEM and arts programs. It’s working. We just got a new member.”

The club celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and members think they’ve hit on the key to remaining relevant.

“People want to be involved,” says Michael Brown, club president. “Some people don’t want to come to a meeting. They want to do events. This is another way to adapt to changing times.”

Back at the mobile observatory, a 7-year-old tells Tanton and other club members that “being able to see into outer space was really worth the wait in the long line.”

The Kiwanis members smile. The project is a success.


This story originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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