Date: June 7, 2010

Title: Dark Skies, Bright Kids


Podcaster: Nicole Gugliucci

Organization: Dark Skies, Bright Kids at the University of Virginia –

Links: DSBK –
Virginia Discovery Museum –

Description: Listen in as astronomers from the University of Virginia Department of Astronomy bring the wonders of the universe to local elementary schools through a new program called Dark Skies, Bright Kids.

Bio: Nicole Gugliucci is a graduate student at the University of Virginia, working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. When not helping with the construction and data analysis for a project called PAPER, she enjoys public outreach activities, especially those that allow her to talk about the fascinating discoveries to come out of radio astronomy.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by David Zimmerman… who just wants to hear Pamela say his name!

Additionall sponsorship is provided by Kylie Sturgess and the Token Skeptic podcast, a weekly show about superstition, science and why we believe – at


Nicole: Hello and welcome to today’s edition of the 365 Days of Astronomy. My name is Nicole Gugliucci, and I’m a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Virginia. In our department, we have a great outreach program called Dark Skies, Bright Kids, or DSBK. I’d like to share some of our experiences and tell you how you can use these activities in your classroom, home-school group, astronomy club, or with your own kids at home.

Dark Skies, Bright Kids was started by UVa astronomer Kelsey Johnson in the fall of 2009. With a band of volunteer grad students, post docs, and undergraduates, she has been visiting local elementary schools to bring astronomy to the classroom in a fun way and get the students out under the very dark skies of Albemarle County to experience the universe for themselves.

DSBK is an after school astronomy club that meets on Friday afternoons at one of our nearby, rural elementary schools. We have run this program at two different schools so far, one in the fall and another this spring. We have seventeen 2nd through 5th graders that come to the club every week.

This is different from a one-time outreach event in that we can develop a mentoring relationship with the kids and review the same concepts, such as how science works, over time. We recruited these club members by putting on a big astronomy event for the entire after-school club, which comprises about half the students. One activity involved a planetarium show in an inflatable StarLab that was graciously lent to us by the Virginia Discovery Museum in Charlottesville. I’ll let you listen in on a star tour given by Andre, a grad student at UVa…

Andre: This star right here, do you guys remember what it’s called?

Kid: Orion.

Andre: It starts with a ‘B’.

Kids: Betelguese!

Andre: And this star out here is called Rigel. This star right here is called Canis Major which means “Big Dog” in Latin. And this star right here is Sirius which is the second brightest star in the sky. Does anyone know
what the brightest star is?

Kids: The Sun.

Andre: The Sun, good. That’s a trick question! There’s another dog called Canis Minor, the Little Dog.

Kid: It’s right there!

Andre: It’s right here.

Kid: Aww!

Andre: It’s a cute little thing.

Nicole: Our first week of this semester’s club continued with the theme of constellations. As the kids made their own constellation finders, Kelsey told them an old Greek myth that none of us will forget any time soon…

Kelsey: And so these three gods say, “Well you’ve been so kind to us, what can we do for you in return? What do you want more than anything else in the whole world?”

Kids: A child. A baby.

Kelsey: A child, exactly. And he says, “What I want more than anything else in the whole world is a son.”

Kid: How is he going to do that?

Kelsey: Hold on. And so the three gods say, “Okay, this is what we want you to do.” Now if someone showed up, a visitor came to your house and told you to do this, I think you’d be a little bit nervous. He says, “The one thing I want in the whole world is a son.” And the three gods say “Okay, this is what we want you do do. Take the skin from the cow that you killed, bury it in the ground.” This is not the way you make children, right?

(Laughter.) So he takes the skin from the cow, he buries it in the ground, and the three god go up to it. And do you know what they do?

Kid: They put a spell on it.

Kelsey: You’re close! This is the best part of the whole story.

Kid: The sprinkle some gold dust.

Kelsey: They sprinkle on it…. This is the best part of the whole story. You know what they do?

Kids: What?

Kelsey: The gods walk up to the buried cow skin, and they pee on it.

Kids: EWW! (Laughter)

Kelsey: All at once. And this… do you know another word for pee?

Kid: What?

Kelsey: Urine. You guys see a similarity-

Kid: The baby was made out of urine?

Kelsey: Yup. And out from the ground sprang Orion fully grown as a warrior. Now you guys will never forget that story, will you!

Nicole: At DSBK, we emphasize learning through play. We want to get across the message, above all, that science is fun. The kids got to make their own analogue comets using dirt, water, a few other materials, and dry ice. We then made edible comets by freezing over ice cream and cookie chunks with liquid nitrogen. Although we didn’t let them handle dry ice and liquid nitrogen directly, of course, they got a kick out of some basic demos.

And you can hear their excitement as Andre and Paul work though this particular demon stration …

Andre: So what do you think will happen when I put a balloon inside the cold liquid nitrogen?

Kids: Shrink!

Andre: It’ll shrink. Who thinks it’ll shrink?

Kids: It’ll look like a little mini-me.

Andre: Who thinks it’ll get bigger? (Waits for hands to raise.) Let’s try it. Mr. Paul, you want to do the honors?

Paul: I suppose I could.

Kid: Let’s hope it doesn’t pop, too!


Kid: (singing) How big is it?

Kid: It’s shrinking!

Kid: It is?

Kid: Yeah look.

Andre: So what do you think will happen when we take it back out?

Kid: It’ll be flat!

Kid: It’s sinking!

Kid: Looks like a duffel bag.

Nicole: Uh oh.

Kid: Oh cool! It’s blowing back up!

(crackling sound of frozen balloon reinflating)

Paul: It might explode. (Laughter)

Nicole: Back away, back away!

Kid: It’s blowing back up!

Meredith: Just tell them everything might explode.

(laughter… POP! Cheers and laughter)

Kid: Do it again! Do it again! Do it again! Do it again!…. That was awesome!

Nicole: That was awesome.

Kids chanting: Blow it up! Blow it up! Blow it up!

Nicole: Of course, most of our activities are directly hands on. During an introduction to meteorites, Kelsey brought a medium-sized meteorite from Virginia and a small meteorite from Arizona. The kids got to hold both and, amazingly, the smaller one was much heavier! This was an iron meteorite, whereas the larger one was stoney. I asked some questions as the kids handled these rocks from space…

Nicole: Autumn, why don’t you tell me about the difference?

Autumn: This one is definitely heavier, but I’m not used to holding heavier things. I know it’s metal.

Nicole: It’s metal and it’s smaller and it’s heavier.

Kid: It is small.

Autumn: That’s just so cool. It’s almost completely made out of metal.

Nicole: Yup.

Kid: Oh that’s hot. It feels warm.


Kid: If this came out of the sky and hit somebody in the face, I bet you, they’re in the hospital…


Nicole: I’d like to note that there is a transcription on the podcast website if you couldn’t hear above the background din. We learned that clap from their teachers as a way to regain control when they got too excited!

Later the kids made their own craters in bowls of flour and cocoa powder. However, we didn’t want to give the impression that collisions are all destructive, so we gathered some materials with which they could make
their own planets through accretion.

Nicole: Alright, why don’t you guys tell me what you’re doing.

Kid: I am making…

Nicole: What are you doing?

Shelaja: I’m making a comet… what’s this stuff called?

Kids: …. Foam! And…. fuzz balls.

Nicole: What are you doing, Kayla?

Kayla: I am making a planet.

Nicole: Uh huh. What’s it made of?

Kayla: It’s made of all kinds of stuff that you can… whatever. It’s made of fuzz balls, clay, and fuzzies.

Nicole: Fuzzies? Fuzzies. Ugh, it’s sticky! So you’re throwing these things on like meteors?

Kid: Not exactly throwing, but just kind of sticking them.

Nicole: Right, because if you throw it too fast, it might bounce off, but if it’s slow enough, it kind of sticks, right?

Kid: Like this!

Nicole: Yup! You’ve got a nice styrofoam ball there…

Nicole: Of course, what’s an astronomy course without some quality telescope time? Every once in a while, the weather cooperates with us, and we can enjoy some of the darkest skies on the East Coast. Our club has a 10-inch telescope with all the bells and whistles and a Galileoscope for easy setup and viewing the Moon and planets. Club members also bring their own optics, and I was inspired to dig my little 3 and a half inch
reflector out of the closet. Thankfully, my buddy Paul could get it working when I couldn’t figure it out. Back in April, we had a spectacular list of planets to see in the evening. Here, Gail and I introduce some of our girls to the planet Mars…

Kayla: Can you see it with the telescope?

Gail: Yup! You can see it through a telescope.

Nicole Go take a look.

Gail: Look in… right through there.

Nicole: Tell us what you see.

Kayla: I see…. rainbowish….

Gail: Do you see a really bright disk?

Kayla: Yeah…

Gail: Yup, that’s Mars.

Kayla: That’s Mars?!

Gail: That’s Mars.

Kid: Mars?

Kayla: Mars! Look in there.

Kid: That little teeny dot is Mars?

Nicole: Yup. That’s a whole planet.

Kid: That is small for a planet.

Kid: Yeah it’s very small.

Nicole: That’s because it’s really far away.

Gail: And Earth looks that small from Mars. If you were on Mars looking back at Earth you would just see this little blue dot…

Kid: How do YOU know that?!

Kayla: She is an astronomy person!

Gail: (laughs) I took classes in this.

Kid: I know but, I thought you were on Mars and got a telescope.

Gail: I wish I could go to Mars, that would be wonderful.

Nicole: When it comes down to it, we, the volunteers, are just big kids as well when it comes to looking through a telescope. After all, most of us are far more likely to be crunching data at our computer than to be at a telescope, and even less likely to look through an actual eyepiece. Genevieve describes Mars as it looks through my little scope…

Genevieve: I like all of these little beeping sounds. I feel like I’m on a spaceship.

Nicole: (laughs) Tell me what you see, Genevieve.

Genevieve: Mars is a pale orange dot. Um, our seeing is pretty good.

Nicole: My blinking red light is probably not helping.

Genevieve: No, it’s a good telescope.

Nicole: Yay, I love my Meade!

Genevieve: I’m mostly getting color, a little bit of shape.

Nicole: Kind of far, but, we’ve got a little disk. Little itty bitty Martian disk!

Genevieve: It’s great.

Nicole: We cover many different topics over the course of a semester, including, stars, galaxies, planets, invisible light, and rockets. Each week has a brief introduction and several hands-on activities. These activities have been pulled from various sources on the web and are often modified to fit our needs. We experiment with what works best and are in the process of writing up our lesson plans. As they are completed, they are posted on our website, All links will also be in the show notes.

In addition to the lesson plans, you can find pictures from our club activities, our mission statement, other links and resources, our “mascot blog”, and ways that you can help us out. (Let’s face it, juice boxes can get
expensive.) Please send us feedback on our website!

I hope you enjoyed this edition of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. Be sure to explore science, astronomy, and the universe yourself, and have fun while doing it!

Many thanks to the wonderful Kelsey Johnson, to all the volunteers, including those featured in this podcast: Andre, Paul, Meredith, Gail, and Genevieve. And thanks to our wonderful kids who (and whose parents) let me record them this semester… all those that remain unnamed, as well as Shelaja, Kayla, and Autumn.

Nicole: What you looking at, Paul?

Paul: It’s a fuzzy. (Sees the recording device…) Oh no no no!

Nicole: (Laughter) Yes, I have you saying, “Fuzzy!”

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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