Why Amateur Astronomy Has Failed in Outreach with Our Youth

There was a wonderful letter in the Reflector magazine from the Astronomical League by League President John Goss.  Mr. Goss makes a wonderful appeal to reminding all of us of the wonder and questions that outreach brings to many people of various ages and especially to our youth.  In reading the letter I enjoyed Mr. Goss' themes and it got me thinking.  I have really backed off over the last two or three years on doing outreach, except at my local library.  As a professional educator which is my second career, my first a successful business career, with 12 years of education and 14 years of experience in education teaching, I have a strong and proven belief on why the current model of outreach is failing to attract both the youth and young people to our hobby, and what does work.

The current model of outreach is an outdated and almost extinct model of where a group of amateurs meet up, set up their telescopes at a publicized location and then show objects to the public as they rotate through the field of telescopes.  This is akin to the lecture demo model in education where the teacher lectures to their students from the front of the room and students are expected to take notes and learn.  The teacher is the holder of the information and dispenses it to them and the type of object is in the eyepiece, and looking. Okay, so what? How the hell does that attract new people to our hobby?  It doesn't. It is fun for an evening, people enjoying viewing, especially those that don't want to find and own a scope.  For those people and amateurs they have figured out that the best "GOTO" telescope is the one where someone else does the work and they get to see the view.

In education today there are several models of pedagogy used in the classroom to ensure that student engagement is high, so that their interest is high and that learning is high.  A quick story shared with me this week has to do with the superintendents of the local school districts meeting in a small school district here for a working breakfast to review how to improve student attendance. While right in that restaurant were several high school kids from across the street who should have been in class and were sloughing. The students were invited over and they shared when they want to be in class. "When the teacher has a lesson where we get to do stuff, where we get to learn by doing then I go." one of them shared.  We call it using constructivism, Bloom's Taxonomy where creating from learning is the highest form of learning.  Some call or use inquiry learning to promote student engagement and learning. The point that this student made so wonderfully is that the youth and young people today have grown up doing. They have taught themselves how to use computers and software, how to master video games, how to do many things we in our late 40's and beyond never learned until we were adults. To think we can capture them and rouse their interest in our hobby by simple sharing is to put down their abilities and intelligence.

One argument I see on a regular basis is that amateur astronomy is a middle age and older hobby. I don't buy it as I got into it in my early 30's.  I was exposed as a kid by my Dad and as a teen by some adults who were teachers. That peaked my interest and in my early 30's I got into the hobby at that point. As I have seen the youth and young people will get involved in the hobby and do what they want to do with it which is what this generation seems to do like the ones previous to it. They may not be a club officer or be largely involved outside of doing their own observing, but that is okay, they will be involved as much as they want to IF they are allowed to participate and contribute fully. Then you may just get a younger club officer or other contribution that is meaningful to them.

So what are the alternatives?  It has to be where students are engaged in the learning process. Teach students how to collimate a reflector, to align the Telrad with the eyepiece, and to look at the constellations, identify them and to star hop. Teach them how to use a scope with goto on it. Share with them how to identify the type of object, how to create an observing list, and to have studies what those objects are (before or after depending on your goal) and then be there to watch and observe as they go after and nail their lists. I have done this both in schools and at my local library for some time. I have a former student who graduated last June and for Christmas she wanted a solar filter for her 6 inch dob so she could take up solar viewing. She is 18 and has been viewing/observing since she was 12 as a result of this type of program. Think she is hooked for life though astronomy is just a hobby for her? Yep, her and about 12 other kids and about 8 families.

The problem with this model is that an amateur has to trust that kids can learn to use their equipment and be safe with it. We have to trust that as we are there scaffolding these wonderful new people that we can catch before they make a mistake, and fix it is they do. Outside of dropping something on a primary mirror of a dob, or jamming up a goto mount, there are very little things that someone operating a telescope can do that cannot be undone and fixed. The biggest problem I see though are two. First, amateurs have to be willing to give up control of the scope and what someone else is going after and focus on not what they want, but in helping someone else get what that person wants out of that session. That is hard with limited time for events, and observing and wanting to be in control of "YOUR" own equipment. Two, it takes social skills to interact and to teach, and yes, it does take skills to be an actual teacher and to interact with the public.  Some may be needing our help there.

That leads me to my final point here. IF a club or the League is serious about getting more younger people involved, I challenge both to getting some educators to share some basic teaching techniques and to having a part of your outreach events set up where people who have signed up in advance can meet in groups of no more than 4 to receive instruction on how to use a scope.  No matter what though, and there are many other ways this can be done and there are many other people who are trained in education in the field that can share, but this notion of just showing objects has to be supplemented with other outreach activities where the public can be trained how and be given the chance to use an actual telescope.  We will grab some now, plant a seed in others for later but we need to diversify how we are getting people interested by letting them do.  Lets be giddy about what we observe and be giddy in helping others to observe.


Explore Scientific 20mm 100 degrees or 22mm TeleVue Nager 82 degrees

I have to admit, I have become an eyepiece junkie. With 3 major dobs now I wanted a couple of sets of eyepieces.  My favorite eyepieces are the Pentax XW line. They are not perfect as in the 14mm and 20mm with curvature, but the Type I or Type II Paracorr clears up that curvature. I love the contrast the XW's give and the eye relief since I wear my eye glasses while observing, while most of the time I do. So my main eyepieces are the 20mm, 14mm, 10mm (my favorite), 7mm, 5mm and 3.5mm (the last two for when conditions allow which are only a couple of times a year for the 3.5 and a few more for the 5mm).  Anyway, observe with me and you'll find the Pentax XW's in my focuser the most.

I also own the following eyepieces.  From Explore Scientific I own the 20mm and 24mm 68 degrees; I had the 24mm 82 degree EP that I gave to my friend Alan so he could have a wide field eyepiece.  I also have the 10mm and 6mm Baader Classic Orthos which I enjoy for detail loo the 27mm and 35mm Panoptic, both favorites and now I have the 17.3mm, 12mm, 10mm and 8mm Delos to back up my Pentax XW line and to do some hard comparisons as viewing allows over the next couple of months so expect those.

I have never really gotten into the 100 degree eyepieces though I have tried and sold a few in the past. Recently I have purchased the 9mm Explore Scientific 100 degrees and in my AR102, M42 was wonderful and the 4 stars of the Trap showed great.  More on that another time.  I also borrowed a 20mm ES 100 degree and ordered one. Then I had a chance to compare it to the 22mm Nagler by TeleVue.  In reviewing that I found that the 20mm ES was pretty sharp across the field though the sharpest was near the 75 degrees from center. Contrast was also excellent. Then I put in the 22mm Nagler and WOW!  Contrast was superior for me (key here this is MY observation and others will and should differ on their opinions from me as my eyes and preferences are not yours so take my review as my review, not yours. You have to do your own review to find out how they work for you), and stars were crisp and sharp across the whole field, just a tad better than the ES 20mm.  The crispness and contrast was enough that for me, I cancelled by ES 20mm 100 degree order for $225 and got the 22mm Nagler for an additional $200.  Regrets on the additional cost? Not at all.  If you don't have the money to buy then one would be happier with the 20mm ES 100.  I did keep the 9mm ES 100 as I want to use it in one of my dobs at a dark site.

I made a point here and I think it is critical.  What is right for me, my eyes and my brain is not necessarily right for you and your pocketbook.  If you can afford the ES 20mm 100 degrees eyepiece you are going to be very happy with it.  For what I am trying to accomplish the 22mm Nagler is a better overall eyepiece based on what I saw, the price, and how I will be using it with my scopes. That is my second point, don't be afraid to go against the crowd and find out for yourself at a star party how different eyepieces your interested in will work. What about the Televue 21mm Ethos for me? Far too much money for an eyepiece I will not use enough so I don't own one. It has tremendous views but I observe 98% of the time deep sky objects and I use wide field on objects that need a wide field or as a finder eyepiece.  There are not a lot of those objects and I find that the ES 30mm 82 degree eyepiece is sufficient for that or the 35mm Panoptic.  I don't need to spend the money on the Ethos as I have two eyepieces that serve my purposes better for me.  For that matter that is why I did not get the 31mm Nagler as I just don't use it enough and the cost is far more than I want to pay for an eyepiece I don't use and its competitor is equal to it or about 90% of it depending on who you talk to.
Third, take your time. If you have to wait one or two years to make a decision do that. If that is too long then six months is no biggie. Wait until you can use the eyepiece and make a decision based on your scope and where you observe and what you have and your observing goals and then make a decision.  We rush far too often here in the U.S. as our society pushes that a lot. Sometimes waiting is the best decision to make when purchasing equipment.  The objects in the night sky are not going away in my life or yours. Our lifespan is not even a twinkle in the eye of the universe.  Take your time. I waited 3 years for a Panoptic 35mm and I got one that has meaning to me as I got it from a friend who left the hobby.  Every time I use it I think of Tom.

So there you go. For me the 22mm Nagler is my 2 inch eyepiece in the low 20mm range that is right for me. If your looking for one, try them out and see what is right for you. That is the best advice I can give you and be patient in your purchase and in making your decision.  Also remember for many, eyepiece collections outlast a lot of scopes as scopes are upgraded to larger sizes or down graded to smaller sizes depending on our life factors. Last, the very last thing is get out with whatever you have, as often as you can, and just be giddy as you explore the night sky however you do so.