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Starry, Scientific Nights at Mount Washington Elementary

The Meerkat Mom posits that extracurricular activities like Mount Washington Elementary School's Star-Gazing night can help get kids excited again about science.

“When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.” --Capt. Laurel Clark, Astronaut, Space Shuttle Columbia

“For my part, I know nothing with any certainty but that the stars make me dream.” --Vincent Van Gogh, Artist

Students at Mount Washington Elementary School will have a chance to be solar system citizens and dream a little closer to the stars this Friday when volunteers from the Los Angeles Astronomical Society (LAAS) bring their telescopes and their knowledge to Mount Washington Star-Gazing Night, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

The evening, organized by the Mount Washington Parent-Teacher Association, will not only give students and their families an opportunity to look deep into the sky, but also to get expert information about just what they’re looking at.

Walter Guevara, a teacher at a science and technology school in Culver City and parent of a first grader at , is enthusiastic about the astronomers’ visit.  “The LAAS is a fantastic organization,” he says.  “They bring loads of info to the kids.”

Guevara, an amateur astronomer who will also be setting up his own 8-inch diameter telescope on the night time playground, anticipated some of the highlights of the upcoming evening. Contrary to popular belief, for instance, the new moon is better for examining lunar craters than when the moon is full. “The shadows and the deepness of the craters really pop out,” explains Guevara.

Another “stop” in the starry heavens will undoubtedly be the Orion constellation: “one of the most beautiful sights in the night sky” according to Guevara. Betelgeuse, a red "supergiant" and the eighth brightest star in the night sky, can be found in Orion.

Anvi Kevany, also the parent of a first grader and the PTA Chairperson of the Star-Gazing event, says this is the third year that the LAAS will send four to six volunteers to Mount Washington Elementary School. Previously, a retired teacher gave seminars in the day and set up telescopes at night.  (The Meerkat Mom fondly remembers the “oohs” and “aahs” of her own offspring as they raced from telescope to telescope to gaze at the night sky.)

For the convenience of families, dinner will be available from 5-7 p.m. at the aptly named “La Estrella” Taco Truck, which will donate 20 percent of the night’s profits to benefit sixth-grade programs at the school. “Galactic goodies” will also be available at the on-site bake sale.  The event will be cancelled if there is cloudy or rainy weather.

The Mount Washington event is one of the nonprofit Los Angeles Astronomical Society’s free-of-charge “Outreach Star Parties,” which are small, private site-specific versions of their “Public Star Parties” held in front of Griffith Observatory each month.  The Society’s mission to excite and educate the public, particularly school groups, about astronomy via their outreach programs is particularly timely given the recent report from the National Academies in which American students ranked 48th in math and science skills out of 113 nations world-wide.

Fifty years ago, when President John F. Kennedy kick-started the U.S. space program, he also initiated a nationwide campaign to get the American public excited about and invested in putting a man on the moon.  (The Meerkat Mom remembers “astronaut” consistently outranking “firefighter“ and “race car driver” on her classmates’ “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” lists.)

Similarly, the more kids are exposed to the larger world around them via events like Star-Gazing Nights (or Los Angeles River Tours or exhibits at the Science Center downtown), the more likely they are to get excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects.

Will Star Parties solve America’s educational crisis?  No.  But what a fun place to start ….

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