When the giant Magellan Telescope opens sometime in the next decade, it will be 10 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope. But you don’t need billion-dollar equipment to introduce your Scouts to astronomy, according to veteran merit badge counselor Chris Smith of Allentown, Pa. Smith and his daughter, Kaitie, who often team-teach the Astronomy merit badge, shared their top tips with Scouting magazine. They are both with the Minsi Trails Council.
Although you don’t need an expensive instrument, you do need more than a discount-store telescope. “They’re difficult to use, and they give you such poor-quality images that it discourages kids,” Chris says. “If you show a kid a really good shot of Jupiter or Saturn through a good telescope, they’ll say, ‘Wow!’ almost every time, but if you use a poor telescope, you’ll have trouble even finding it.”
If you don’t want to drop $400 or more on a good telescope, he recommends connecting with a local astronomy club, which will have access to high-quality instruments and — perhaps even better — people who know how to use them.
Chris and Kaitie teach the badge through the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomy Society, whose Pulpit Rock Astronomical Park is perhaps the best amateur observatory east of the Mississippi.
Unless you’re teaching one Scout at a time, it’s good to have some help.
“If there’s a leader who has his own telescope, I would recommend he do a crash course with a couple of other leaders in the troop without kids so that he’s not just on his own,” Chris says.
That’s how former tagalong Kaitie started teaching. Once, when her dad was having trouble getting a telescope to sync with his computer, she grabbed his laser pointer and started telling Scouts the stories behind the constellations.
“When I started teaching the stories, they got more interested in the constellations,” she says. “Instead of it just being a bunch of stars in the sky, there was now a story.”
That laser pointer, which is so bright that it looks like a lightsaber, is one of Chris’ favorite teaching tools. Another is the Evening Sky Map, available for free at skymaps.com
“They publish a sky map for the month; on the front and back it has all kinds of information about stuff happening in the sky,” he says.
Chris is also a fan of Stellarium (stellarium.org), which bills itself as “a free open source planetarium for your computer.”
Of course, there are also plenty of smartphone apps available, but the Smiths recommend saving those for later to avoid distractions.
Spring and fall are the best seasons to work on the badge.
“Astronomical twilight is at 8 or 9 o’clock,” Chris says. “No Scout leader is interested in keeping his kids up until 3 a.m.”
But summer isn’t bad. When Kaitie was on staff at Trexler Scout Reservation in Kunkletown, Pa., last summer, she did some informal teaching.
“Everyone was, like, lying on the ground looking at the sky while I was pointing things out and talking,” she says. “Everyone was so fascinated by it. I was so happy that they loved it.”
It is too bad that someone had to go out of their way to invalidate the use of a planetarium for star and constellation identification. This makes it difficult for an urban scout under light polluted skies that block all but the brightest stars or area’s where it can be downright dangerous to be outside at night. Not all scouts can afford the luxury of going to camp. The Digistar 6 system at our planetarium can easily simulate a real night sky.