Who knew that older students could manage a nearly two hour tour without a gimmick? Well, truth be told, I did! The reason being is because the trip was to an observatory in progress of being built and the subject involved their passion! That's one of the greatest things about working with students and astronomy; the profundity of the skies above paired with an all-access pass to explore captivates everyone!
I'll admit that I wasn't ready to see a bus pull up. In the past I've seen plenty of people meander up, some on bikes or perhaps a few to a car but never a school bus being followed by a caravan of cars, trucks and SUVs! The excitement struck me and I was in my element! As they filed off the bus and people began making their way over to the solar observation table I could see something on their faces, genuine happiness. These students, on a Saturday, had no obligation to venture out with some eager teacher to a small town in the middle of a corn field to see the toiling of some random space geek, but something called to them. It's the same thing that called to me all those years ago as I ventured out into the darkness of my backyard alone. I know what it's like! And so they came and congregated around, the mood amongst them full of youthful energy.
Before the story proceeds, it will do well to note that there isn't some grand ending. No new planets were found. No vast gaseous fields were witnessed as mouths dropped agape in a crowd hushed by astonishment. No such thing happened. To be fair, that was known in advance by all in attendance long before they agreed to make the trip, which brings me to my next point. All of this stems from genuine desire, passion and interest! It isn't glitz and glam. It isn't laced with a gimmick or filled with tricks meant to dazzle. Heck, it didn't even have a cool soundtrack! But still they came, only wishing to see the opportunities and know more about what lay ahead for them!
These students are part of an astronomy club at a school about 45 minutes away in the town of Pleasant Valley. Boy howdy were they a cool bunch! A diverse group as well, which gives me hope because it is from diversity that we generate the best outcomes! They gathered around the solar observation table, with its three solar telescopes and solar observation glasses and began their viewing! They seemed genuinely pleased by the sights they witnessed! Brief explanations were offered of the differences between methods of solar observation and the different solar observation opportunities that exist at the Wilton Observatory. There was a brief apology offered for the absence of the portable radio telescope. As I told them, when it's windy outside the radio telescope either sits still or is flying off and getting smashed into the concrete. This day I chose to spare it such a fate, as it has endured my torture enough already.
As the crowd progressed through the different eyepieces of the three solar scopes, taking in the clear view of our nearest star, I shared with them my philosophy. I feel that it's important for guests to know why we even bothered to make the Wilton Observatory. Some might question why we intend to let small children play with radio telescopes or handle expensive pieces of equipment. Some might ask just what we expect to happen when we give a student a spectroscope and say, "Have at it!" The point is that there is no harm in empowering students with advanced technology in the hopes that even a few will find the inspiration to be driven beyond the bounds of normalcy and pursue a newfound passion! That's it! We can't possibly say that we know what the limits are, so we put together the best selection of instrumentation possible with the funds made available to us by our donors! We designed these instrumentation packages to be as approachable and easy to use as possible and coupled them with automation software to truly open up the skies above as has never been done before in a Pre-K through 12th grade setting! We don't act as instructors sitting high atop a throne, dictating the edicts by which we want our subjects to follow. Instead we are amongst them, as they are! We stand fresh-eyed in front of the scopes, just as they do, filled with excitement! We only seek to join them on this expedition of learning and do so in a way that grows with them year after year, until they drive us forward! We want them to be so inspired and empowered, driven by their own curiosity in a setting that nurtures and fuels them, that THEY push US to new frontiers!
And so I shared this with the crowd, hoping that it would be received well. The smiles and chuckles as this stranger babbled on at a million-miles-an-hour in front of them like some over-caffeinated jackrabbit made it apparent that they liked what I said. At a minimum, they were entertained.
We then proceeded into the main lobby of the elementary school, the showcase area for the Wilton Observatory instrumentation as it awaits the completion of its new home. The crowd quickly huddled around the display window and their fixation was easily noted as they gazed at the cool things inside. Explanations of the different instruments were given, describing just how these tools worked to split open the mysteries of the sky above. They happily nodded and were taken by what they saw! It was almost as though some just wanted to snatch up the equipment and start exploring right then and there! Inside the display room we went, a tight fit for a crowd as large as we were hosting! The primary telescope, with its massive instrumentation package hanging aft, whirred and hummed as it moved about. The gaze of the students and guests funneled to a singular point as the aperture slewed downwards, aiming its mechanical stare at the visitors in front of it. I spoke of the collection of photons, how things operated and of the computer programs involved. Some would consider this part mundane but they seemed to take it well, asking questions and liking the view.
We moved then to the cafeteria, an odd area for an astronomy tour. I explained the unique features of this space, how it allows large groups to easily congregate, how the ceiling was laced with speakers and that a large TV was present at the front. I told them of our plans to use this space as a teleconference center, a place for students to gather and listen to the knowledge, wisdom and tales of our guests that can't make it out to our little slice of heaven. They loved it! This part was brief as the Command Center was our next stop!
A short walk in the open air ended as our procession made its way into the Ag Building, the home of the Wilton Observatory Command Center! We made our way down the main corridor, past the mural of Andromeda Galaxy that is in progress, and into the room now made to be a powerful learning space! They found their way to the chairs and made themselves comfortable amongst the 4K TVs and computer monitors. I explained that this is the place that most will come to know best as explorations begin. This room will act as a collaborative work space and hub, empowering students with advanced programs and fiber optic connections to the observatory, with its telescope and instrumentation packages. Available 24 hours a day, this place will see years of students making genuine discoveries as they hunt for glimmers in distant galaxies and stand sentry as they monitor the skies for asteroids and comets! The students loved it and I made it clearly known that they are welcome back when all of this comes online in the coming months!
Back to the open air we went, taking in the freshness and warmth we had so long been denied by the winter we just crawled out from under. Over the rise of the football field we walked as the observatory came into view. Private conversations started amongst members of the group as they caught their first views of what I joked looked more like a place to park ones lawnmower. We made our way over to the elegantly humble structure as I offered explanations of what they were seeing. The little arm and seemingly simple tube sticking out from the North wall, I explained, actually plays a huge part in keeping our operation safe from bad weather. I explained the scenarios in which we could find ourselves that this little piece of tech, our weather monitoring instrument, could save our hides! From there we strolled into the observatory, as their teacher remarked that it's bigger on the inside that what it looks like outside. Yes, I proceeded to make a TARDIS joke. You would have too if you were in my shoes!
I spoke briefly of what would come to be mounted in there and presented a scenario where all of the needed conditions for observation were perfect and the computer is ready to observe. Little did I know that a handful of students were busy looking around and didn't notice my actions as I tapped on the touchscreen control panel, initiating the roof to open! Their fright and racing hearts brought them around quickly to take notice as the roof parted above them, their faces smiling as brightly as the star that beamed down upon them! It's a reaction and a view that I cannot see myself ever tiring of! They loved it! Questions and answers were exchanged and invitations were extended for them to return when all was in place.
After the roof closed and we walked out, exchanging our closing goodbyes, what followed humbled me. It was applause. It didn't seem hurried or forced. It was a group commending a thought, a vision, that an eager team of humans were brave enough to execute and make into a reality to share with the world. Applause, played as a numbing trigger to respond in sitcoms of old, can sometimes seem trite. But this moment, as we stood in the shadow of a neighboring building, made me bow my head. Sharing this opportunity, this passion and drive, is all I ever want to do! To see it so warmly welcomed brings me to the brink of tears each time. I love it!
I look forward to welcoming my friends to this place of exploration as the future unfolds before us! I can't wait to see how these resources will be used and what new frontiers that these young minds will gallantly ride off into! Clear skies, my friends! Until we meet again, stay awesome!