A few months ago, an invitation came to me from The Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies to do a little outreach education. The occasion was the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Symposium on Massive Stars. I was happy to be asked because I have a long history with Dunsink Observatory. In my heart, there is a big ‘gra’ ( Irish for love) for the place and the opportunities it afforded me over the years.
My latest workshop was polished up, massive stars and children would come together. The Magical Story of Stars offers children an insight into the complex world of star formation, star lives and the end of star lives. The European Space Agency sent me an enormous photograph of the Carina Nebula. The image was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. I have used ESA’s photo several times in the past to enhance the understanding of stars for children. The Magical Story of Stars workshop perfectly suited the image and the occasion.
Children are in awe of this image. They are engaged from the start as I ask them to help me roll it out and hold it while I tell them what is going on in the dramatic action captured by Hubble. After telling them in as simple a way as possible how stars get started, we continue to our solar system and its contents. They name the planets, and some kids can call them in order from the sun. Being able to do this is an improvement from ten years ago when naming the planets in our solar system was difficult for most children. Hats off to the teachers in primary schools for engaging with this subject.
I let them tell me about anything else in our solar system, moons etc. Then I enhance their knowledge by mentioning asteroids, comets and just how many moons there are. They then agree with me that the solar system is a vast place. However, my tiny Jelly Tot (a jelly sweet) gets them. When I place it on the nebula and inform them that our solar system could fit inside the jelly tot compared to a nebula, that creates stars. Their minds were blown, significant WOW factor and big smiles. Then I eat the jelly tot, and they all laugh. That is an excellent start to any workshop.
Orion Nebula Massive Stars
The Carina Nebula was not the drawing challenge as it is not visible from Ireland. Our target was the Orion nebula and its massive stars, as drawn by myself via my eight-inch dob. I offered all four schools to choose from my drawings of M42 in an eight inch or sixteen inch telescope. Those drawings are, of course, created in many shades of grey pastel. Children must know that if they see the nebula in Orion, it is not in colour in the night sky.
However, as I had informed them why nebula are printed in colour to show different elements, we could move on. To spice things s up, the children could draw the nebula in whatever colour they liked. The main point was to capture the apparent power of the cloud of gas where stars are born. They were to try to capture the shapes of the gas and dust surrounding the four massive stars visible in the trapezium. They were encouraged to put energy into their drawings while thinking of the birth of new stars ongoing in the massive cloud.
James Webb Space Telescope
When the children were close to finishing their Orion nebulae, I offered them another challenge. They could add it or not, depending on how they felt about it. The James Webb Space Telescope came into their lives for the first time. I explained how they could draw this space telescope and include it looking at M42. The main point they understood is that JWST can look inside clouds of dust and gas and see stars being born. The majority of drawings had JWST added before the workshop was over.
I hope the children who took part saw the first images produced by the JWST and remembered what they had learned. Everyone went home with JWST stickers, JWST fun booklets, ESO stickers that said The Universe is my Playground and a map of where the Orion constellation will be in the night sky in December, January, February and March 2023. Plus, for each child, some sunflower seeds for planting to remind them that we need to look after our planet because it is so special.