Keiki take a ‘journey through the universe’

  • STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald Mimi Fuchs, a telescope system specialist at East Asian Observatory/James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, right, leads an experiment with first-grade students Calliope Miura, left, and Zoie Nakano.

  • STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald Mimi Fuchs, a telescope system specialist at East Asian Observatory/James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, talks to students in Traci Urasaki’s first-grade class at E.B. de Silva Elementary School as part of Gemini Observatory's Journey Through the Universe program.

Little hands pounded on their desks, a drum roll for lift off last Wednesday in Traci Urasaki’s first-grade class at E.B. de Silva Elementary School.

The keiki waited with excited anticipation, and with a quiet “POP,” the rocket — a film canister that had been filled with water and part of an Alka-Seltzer tablet — launched high into the air.

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Celebratory yells and cheers echoed in the classroom.

This experiment, simulating how humans get into outer space, was a success. Other attempts fizzled, with the homemade rocket barely making it off the desk.

The students were scientists and budding astronomers learning about space as part of Journey Through the Universe program, a science education and outreach program organized by Gemini Observatory to promote science education and literacy, now in its 16th year.

Janice Harvey, education and engagement lead for Gemini, said Journey Through the Universe was set to bring about 74 astronomy educators into 300 Big Island classrooms throughout the week.

Journey has expanded from one week of classroom visits to a year-long program. Although most classroom visits are consolidated to one week, astronomy educators visit classes throughout the year.

And this year, for the first time, the program expanded to Maui.

Now that the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is there, Harvey said, “They have outreach people and they were able to go into classrooms over in Maui. We hope to continue to expand it.”

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak this year did cause a hiccup “because we had some who were unable to come in at the last minute, but we’ve been able to make up the classes,” she said.

The class session was led by an energetic and engaging Mimi Fuchs, a telescope system specialist at East Asian Observatory/James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.

She started the session asking the students to name something in outer space — planets, moon rocks, black holes and aliens — before turning talk to how someone would get to space.

When it was time for the rocket experiment, students paired off and could determine how much water and how much “fuel” their rockets would have.

Urasaki said Journey Through the Universe is great — it’s interactive and students love it, “you couldn’t ask for a better program.”

“We want to have our next generation to be scientifically literate, and I can’t imagine a more important moral obligation that we can go in and teach in our schools the importance of science and information,” Harvey said. “So it’s not just about astronomy, it’s about teaching basic science skills to the kids. … “

After the session, Fuchs said Journey Through the Universe is “the best week of the year.”

Throughout the year, she and colleagues and friends are “pretty active in astronomy and community engagement,” but Journey is the best week because the number of scientists and engineers that get into the classroom is unparalleled.

As a child growing up in North Carolina, Fuchs said she dreamed of working on Maunakea.

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“Once I knew that the best space science and the best astronomy happened there, I knew I had to get there,” she said. “… It feels really special that I can then come into schools, especially in Hilo, where I live and where I work and I have my community, and help plant this idea that maybe these kids, too, could also grow up … (and with) whatever they’re interested in, they can also make their dreams come true. Because you know, maybe it’s not going to be science, maybe it’s not going to be engineering, but they get a chance to see someone who made that happen, and it feels really special that I get to show them the opportunities that they can have on island.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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