Date: October 1, 2009

Title: My Favorite Things? Getting Astronomy on Your Children’s Favorites List


Podcaster: Patrick McQuillan with help from Connor and Ryan McQuillan

Organization: Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS)

Description: What things would your kids place on their list of favorite things? How can you get astronomical topics on that list? You might be surprised to find that looking through telescopes is NOT the best way to engage young children in astronomy. Neither are all the currently popular new media outlets, young kids just aren’t hooked into them yet. We’ll take an unscientific look at what my kids like and how that interest is cultivated. It might work for you too.

Bio: Patrick McQuillan earned a B.S. degree in Physics from the College of William and Mary. His senior research project involved determining the period of variable stars, most notably Alpha Auriga. This was at a time when collecting data meant going to the roof of the physics building, locating the star by hand, and tracking the star manually by following a guide star in the finder scope. No GPS-auto-guiding-from-a-climate-controlled-remote-location! In the twenty plus years since then, he has explained astronomy to the general public as a Planetarium Director, the Education Manager for Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, and currently explains Earth Science as Education and Outreach Specialist for IRIS. You can view current earthquake activity using the Seismic Monitor located on the IRIS website.

Connor and Ryan McQuillan are just kids. They have varied interests, with astronomy being just one thing among many.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Stephen Winter, in dedication to his father Robert Winter.


Connor: Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky, twinkle, twinkle little star, now I wonder what you are.

Patrick: Welcome to the October 1 edition of the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcasts. Hello, I’m Patrick McQuillan, the Education and Outreach Specialist with IRIS, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, and a former Planetarium Director. For today’s episode I am going to enlist the help of my two sons: Ryan who is eight, and Connor who turns six today. Happy Birthday Connor!

Today’s topic is lists of favorite things and cultivating a continuing interest in those favorites. If you have kids, then you are well aware that the things that spark their interest are varied and always changing. It is a moving target that constantly morphs into something new. As a parent it is hard to know which interests to cultivate and which ones to let wither. Should you purchase a pet parrot because your daughter is just fascinated with birds? Only to have her get hooked on plants next week. Parrots live a long, long time. It’s a difficult proposition. And you never know where that interest might lead.

If you are listening to this Podcast, you probably have an interest in astronomy. Did you ever wonder where your interest in astronomy came from? Or when it began?

For me it began in elementary school with a field trip to the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. During a program about the current night sky, the show presenter was talking about Comet West. The thing that peaked my interest was learning that if you discovered a comet, it would be named after you. You didn’t need expensive equipment to discover a comet. And you could do it from your backyard. That was something a kid could do.

From that point on I wanted to learn all I could about the night sky, the planets, constellations, galaxies, black holes. Anything that might help me identify that new comet, should I happen to spot it.

Unfortunately, I never discovered a comet. Of course living in a major city like Philadelphia didn’t really help my chances. But I never lost my interest in astronomy.

In college I was thrilled to discover that there was a class in the Physics department called Freshman Apprenticeship. You would be paired up with a professor and help with their research projects. I quickly signed up when I learned I could help Dr. McKnight with projects that involved the college’s 14-inch telescope. I received actual course credit for looking through a telescope. We didn’t discover any comets that year, but we did produce some nice astrophotographs that were used to estimate stellar magnitudes in one of the astronomy labs.

Physics majors were required to do an actual research project senior year. Again astronomy came to the rescue. I could do a project that allowed me look through the telescope again. And it would guarantee that I wouldn’t be doing some abstract nuclear physics project involving quantum mechanics. I didn’t discover a comet that year either. But I did produce a nice graph of the brightness variation of the star Capella, the brightest star in the constellation Auriga.

During graduate school I had the good fortune to get a part time job in the planetarium at the local science museum. What a deal! People would pay you to explain astronomy to other people. Who would have thought such a thing was possible? It led to over twenty years working in Planetariums explaining the wonders of the Universe to people of all ages. I didn’t discover any comets during that time, but I was able to explain and show Comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake to numerous visitors.

Anyway, my point is what may start off as a short-lived interest in a specific topic could continue long term if the interest is encouraged. You never know where a particular interest might lead you or your children.

As far as astronomy is concerned, it is relatively inexpensive to foster a life-long interest in the Universe. How would you do it? If your first thought is to go purchase a small telescope so you can enjoy the wonders of the Universe by actually observing them with your kids, you will probably fail. I have found over the years that looking through a telescope is the quickest way to get a child uninterested in astronomy.

Telescopes are difficult for young children to use. You have to close one eye, while looking with the other eye. The open eye has to look straight into the eyepiece. You have to lean and bend into an awkward position. And you can’t touch the telescope or you will misalign it. And you usually have to locate something that is only slightly brighter than the surrounding dark sky. And when you find that planet or galaxy or even comet, it looks nothing like the colorful photos in textbooks and magazines.

This fact was observed again this weekend during a trip I took to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. This is the same place where canals on Mars were once all the rage and Pluto was discovered. The observatory had an open house on Sunday evening as part of the 20th Anniversary of the Flagstaff Festival of Science, a week-long, city-wide celebration of science. The staff was wonderfully enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and helpful. And it didn’t matter. It is just too difficult for children and many adults to look into the eyepiece of a telescope. I saw many children get frustrated and go off and do something non-astronomy related, like run around with their brothers and sisters.

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever have your kids look through a telescope. Heavens no. Just don’t use the telescope as a means to get them interested in astronomy. Save the telescope until they are interested, then pull it out. And then take time to teach them how to use it. Multiple observations are necessary in order to get anyone comfortable with viewing the universe through an eyepiece.

Ok, so if not telescopes then what? Well my kids have not looked through telescopes very often and they are both very interested in astronomy. How did they get turned on to the Universe? We’ll, let’s listen to them and see what they like and where they get their 411.

Connor, who is six today, has many interests. He loves animals, Webkins, music, and trains. Astronomy is by no means first on his list, but it is on the list. Let’s hear what he has to say. And just so you know, I didn’t coach him on his answers. Well, except for the hint about Edwin Hubble.

Connor: Hello, my name is Connor and I really, really like planets.

Patrick: What are your five favorite things in space?

Connor: Sun, planets, darkness, stars and spaceships.

Patrick: Ok so you like the Sun as one of your favorite things?

Connor: Yes.

Patrick: Why is the Sun one of your favorites?

Connor: Because it makes people very, very, very warm. And the pool is open.

Patrick: What would the Earth be like if there was no Sun?

Connor: They would have no vitamin D. Or any light. And Earth would be very, very, VERY cold! And you’d have to stay in your house for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.

Patrick: Why is that?

Connor: Because you can’t see so good.

Patrick: How come?

Connor: Because if no Sun is there, it gets very hard to see.

Patrick: So what are your favorite planets?

Connor: Earth and Pluto.

Patrick: How come Pluto is your favorite?

Connor: Because you can go skiing on it once, when its snowing at your area.

Patrick: You can go skiing on Pluto because its cold there? What is it made of?

Connor: Ice and rock.

Patrick: Ice and rock. So where did you learn about Pluto?

Connor: On Zula Patrol.

Patrick: So I heard that Pluto is not a planet anymore.

Connor: I don’t know much about it.

Patrick: Does that bother you?

Connor: No.

Patrick: That Pluto is not a planet anymore?

Connor: No way! And Earth I like it because there are people. And the people live on it. And there is water. And, you know something, there is pools and all kinds of fun stuff people can do on Earth.

Patrick: Ok so one of your other favorite things was darkness? Why is darkness your favorite?

Connor: Because you can go and sleep in it.

Patrick: But why does that make it one of your favorite space things?

Connor: Because it makes people see stars.

Patrick: Ok one of your other favorites was stars? Why are stars your favorite?

Connor: Because they twinkle in the light and you can see them at night. And you can count them at night.

Patrick: Did you know the Sun was a star?

Connor: Yes! I knew that. Because in a movie they said it is hot glowing gas like the Sun.

Patrick: How come they don’t look as big as the Sun?

Connor: Because they are very, very far away.

Patrick: Ok you also said that spaceships were your favorite. Do you have any favorite spaceships?

Connor: Yes. The one that is launching to the space station and the little cars on Mars. The rovers. I like too. And the little ones that takes pictures.

Patrick: What is that one called?

Connor: I forget.

Patrick: The Hubble….

Connor: Hubble…space camera? Hubble Space Telescope!

Patrick: As you heard, Connor not only has a list of favorite astronomical things, he also knows quite a bit about them. You might not have caught where Connor learned about Pluto. Connor said that he learned about Pluto on Zula Patrol. Zula Patrol is an animated cartoon that follows a group of aliens who try to stop the villain, Dark Truder, from ruining the galaxy. The program can be seen on PBS and there is a Planetarium show version also. The show also has very accurate science facts. Well except for the planets themselves, which have funny faces and talk. I’ve never seen that through a telescope. But, and this is important, even though they use talking planets, kids soak up the facts. They get them in a fun way that makes them want to watch (and hopefully learn more.) And Connor knows that planets don’t have funny faces, nor do they talk.

There are quite a few good programs that cover astronomy topics. Magic School Bus has a space episode and even Curious George got stuck on a spaceship one time. Use the good programs, most of the work is done for you. And you might enjoy the show too.

A good way to interest your kids in astronomy is by locating spaceships in the night sky above your house. How cool is it to look in a book at photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, then go out side and watch it pass overhead?

There are several websites that will help you determine exactly when spacecraft are going to pass over your house. My favorite is That is www dot heavens hyphen above dot com. You can set up an account with your longitude and latitude and easily go to the site to see what is up tonight.

Let’s check in with Ryan, who as you might remember is eight, and see what his favorites might be. Overall he likes Legos, maps, and rocks. But here is his take on astronomy favorites.

Patrick: So what are your three favorite things in space?

Ryan: Jupiter, stars, and looking at spaceships.

Patrick: Why is Jupiter your favorite?

Ryan: Because it’s red and very big. You can fit a thousand Earths in it.

Patrick: That’s a big planet. Are there any other planets close in size to Jupiter?

Ryan: Saturn.

Patrick: You like Saturn too?

Ryan: Yes.

Patrick: What do you like about Saturn?

Ryan: It’s big also.

Patrick: So what do you like about stars in the night sky?

Ryan: They are far away and they’re very small.

Patrick: They look small because they’re far away. Do you like going out and looking at them at night time?

Ryan: Yes.

Patrick: What do you like to do with them?

Ryan: I like to look for constellations.

Patrick: Which constellations are your favorite?

Ryan: The Dippers!

Patrick: You like both of those?

Ryan: Yes.

Patrick: So where is your favorite place to go to learn about space and astronomy?

Ryan: In books and in a museum.

Patrick: Where do you find your books?

Ryan: The library!

Patrick: And why is the library a good place to look for astronomy books?

Ryan: Because you can find almost every book.

Patrick: Well our library doesn’t have every book. How do you find them?

Ryan: On the computer.

Patrick: They have a computer you can check to see what books they have?

Ryan: Yes.

Patrick: And how would you look for an astronomy book?

Ryan: You type in astronomy books.

Patrick: And then what?

Ryan: Then it will tell you where they are.

Patrick: And then once you find them what can you do?

Ryan: Check them out and go home!

Patrick: So there you have it. In this age of blinking, hand held, high definition video games, don’t discount the power of a good book. Especially if your child picked it out themself. Both Ryan and Connor enjoy visiting the library and picking out books. Plus the library has DVDs and audio books. It’s a great resource. Make use of it.

We also visit museums and planetariums. They are great places to develop astronomy interests for your kids. Take them to the IMAX space movie, or the night sky tour planetarium program, or to touch a meteorite. You will be surprised how much they remember.

And finally, don’t discount the power of popular culture too. There are some really good astronomy themed offerings that come from music groups like the Wiggles and my favorite, They Might Be Giants. They Might Be Giants has a new CD out called Here Comes Science. What could be cooler than a hip, alternative rock band singing fact-accurate songs about elements, the periodic table, and the Sun. If that doesn’t get your kids excited about astronomy, not much else is going to work. I think I’m going to go play them now, you’re welcome to invite your kids.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.