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There's so much to do for the next generation of space explorers that they better start out young! But astronomy is not on their early elementary schools' schedule. (It's a scandal, they literally miss everything!)

The obvious idea is to watch the night sky. But in a light polluted and mostly clouded city, that is only rarely doable. Although the Moon is often visible. So I'm looking for experiments and demonstrations of astronomy-related physics that can be done with not too much more than household resources anytime (kids have really busy schedules nowadays). And stuff that make an impression on a kid at the age of 7-8 years.

Maybe something like a mathematical sense of proportions of astronomical numbers based on the arithmetic they've learned. Maybe showing that the Sun has dark spots (though those seem to be out of cycle right now). Maybe the speed and inclination of the Sun or the Moon as they race across the sky. Maybe showing that all things fall equally regardless of their weight. The best thing I've come up with is showing that the Moon is as small as a fingernail at arms length, who would intuitively have thought that? Something like that to give an idea.

Videos of rocket launches and planetary discoveries and astrophotography is not what I'm looking for here. That can more easily be taken care of. But a sense of space being right here and everywhere.

This is for someone who has no exposure to space/astronomy concepts. Even her father knows very little--he had no idea what the Milky Way is!

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    $\begingroup$ @DonBranson "Education" is already a tag here. I doubt that those who populate a forum focused on education know what to say about astronomy. I'm afraid that the few of us who are interested in astronomy have to fix this problem ourselves. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Jul 10 '18 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ Do you think your kid is developed enough to enjoy Kerbal Space Program? Not sure if 7 isn't a little bit too young, but with a bit of parent's help... It's a good way to get the 'feel' of space flight. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jul 10 '18 at 20:29
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Kudos to you for your efforts to educate youngsters about the universe! The knowledge they gain, and the enthusiasm you bring to them that leads to more knowledge in the future, will help them become better citizens in a society based on use of technology to provide a better life.

All the kinds of activities you mention are good ones. They touch on basic astronomical observations (sunspots; paths of the sun and moon across the sky), basic physics (gravity, and how things fall), mathematics (geometry: big things far away look small).

This points to the key to astronomical understanding: we can do things here on Earth to understand how the universe works, learning about fundamental concepts in mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.; we can observe things in the sky, such as the moon, the sun, planets, stars, how they move (or appear not to!), etc.; and then by applying what we know about how the universe works to the things we observe, we can learn more about those things in the sky than the simple observations alone could tell us. You've started that process by bringing in some fundamental geometry, fundamental physics, and simple observations.

This is a great direction to take. You might add some simple chemistry: add some vinegar to baking soda, and from a liquid and a solid you can get a gas; add some vinegar to milk, and from two liquids you get a (somewhat gooey!) solid, with some liquid left over. Age 7-8 isn't too young to start with the concept of atoms and molecules, and that all matter you can see with your eyes, or feel with your hands or fingers or cheeks (like wind), including the matter you can see in the sky, is made up of them. With these simple kitchen experiments you can show that sometimes, when molecules come together, the atoms in them rearrange and make new molecules that can be very different from the ones you started with (the basic concept of the chemical reaction).

Binoculars suggested in a comment by @DonBranson are also a good start. The moon is always a good first astronomical target. Start by going to a sandbox with some marbles, or a golf ball, or small rocks—whatever!—and show that objects falling onto a surface can make craters. Then with some ~10-power binoculars (they don't need to be expensive) you can begin to see some of the larger, well-formed lunar craters like Copernicus or Tycho, when they're near the terminator. This reinforces the idea that things you can do here on Earth can help you understand things you see in the sky. Just be sure the kids know NEVER to point them at the sun!!

With a pinhole camera you can show sunspots. First use it indoors, maybe with a flourescent lamp or some other lamp whose shape is not circular, and show that the pinhole camera makes an upside-down and reversed image of the light source. Then go out and use it on the sun.

There are several web sites treating astronomy for children. The National Science Foundation has one, NASA has one, JPL has one (though it appears to concentrate on somewhat older children), there are some not associated with any government agency (this for example). The Kern Astronomical Society has a page with links to a variety of such web sites. The material at these sties might or might not be useful for children to visit themselves, but from them you might get some good ideas for in-home, outdoor, or night-time activities.

But I can't overemphasize the value of one more thing:

A telescope!

My wife and I are both space exploration professionals, and we know a lot of such folk. When we discuss what things made us, as children, take an interest in things astronomical, the most common theme is either having, or having access to, a telescope.

It doesn't have to be expensive at all. For children, you don't need a 5000-buck, 20-cm (8") Schmidt-Cassegrain or Maksutov with clock drive and computer-controlled pointing. You don't need a concrete-mounted post or a 300-buck tripod. You just need a 4 or 5 cm (1-1/2" or 2") (objective diameter), 30- to 50-power cheapie refractor, on a simple short pedestal or short tripod you can put on a TV tray in the back yard. With set-ups like this I've seen adults draw in their breath when they see lunar craters near the terminator for the first time! You can see the moons of Jupiter. You can resolve stars in the Milky Way. You can see the double star in Ursa Major, or the double-double in Cygnus. Once you've shown a curiosity-filled youngster a few such things, on their own they'll want to point it all over the sky, looking for new things. This is a great parent-child or mentor-child activity.

Of course telescopes can be used for other things as well, and looking at ordinary, every-day objects can help teach a child how the telescope works.

Just make sure they don't point it at the sun without a sun filter!

Without a clock drive you can point out that things appear to move in the telescope's field of view, and this is because we're not on a motionless platform: our platform, Earth, is rotating. You can do an indoor activity using a swivel chair to demonstrate how things appear to move if you're on a rotating platform, and then show that the sun and the stars appear to move in the same way.

One caution about the telescope: adults can get hooked too. After a few nights with the cheapie they want a better view of Saturn's rings (the cheapie will only give a tantalizing hint of the rings' glory!), so now the 8-cm (~3"), chromatic-aberration-corrected refractor on a full-size tripod doesn't seem extravagant. Then the clock drive. And if you're going to spring for a clock drive, why not get one with a 20-cm Schmidt-Cassegrain attached? There are many avenues for spending lots of money on telescopes and accessories.

I hope this is helpful. Best of luck with your mentoring! And thank you for your efforts to make our society better.

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    $\begingroup$ Just adding my take on the universe, with implications on science education. For years we've had people saying that the universe is mathematical. It isn't! No planet solves a differential equation to figure out where to go. It just goes. No electron solves Schrödinger's equation to figure out where it should (probably) go. It just goes. It's our description of the universe that's mathematical. Kids should understand that mathematics is something we created to help us describe and understand our world. $\endgroup$ – Tom Spilker Jul 10 '18 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ Mathematics, as far as it describes the universe, is our way of capturing the order we see in the universe. I think it is that underlying order that people intend to express when they say "the universe is mathematical", but as you say that can be misleading. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 10 '18 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ I just thought of a good modification of the marble/sandbox actvity. Make the thing you drop be a small clump of sand. You know how, sometimes, when sand gets wet and then dries, you get some small "clods" that loosely stick together? You can drop one of those (from, say, ~2 meters up) and it will make a small crater. Plus, the clod will be destroyed in the process! You can then explain that when things hit a surface hard enough they are destroyed, so most craters don't have obvious remnants of the impactor left in them. $\endgroup$ – Tom Spilker Jul 10 '18 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ @called2voyage Yes, that's an important point: there is order in the universe, and that allows us to understand it, at least to some point. $\endgroup$ – Tom Spilker Jul 10 '18 at 20:17
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What you are asking for is an incredibly large and broad subject being crammed on a very young mind. There are whole libraries of books of "experiments/activities" that you can do with kids of different ages that correlate to the advancement of the understanding of this subject. But, in my opinion, all of them are somewhat unimportant in relation to the spirit of what you are trying to accomplish (which is to get them interested in the subjects).

To a 7 year old, things like science, math, and knowledge can be rather tedious and uninteresting things. Instead, your goal/focus should be towards exacerbating and guiding their curiosity (which is really the driving force of science anyways).

To that end, I draw upon simple historical precedents that have directed human curiosity at the stars.

1) Seeing the night sky and more importantly that it changes and is alive.

-Sadly, this isn't easy nowadays but if you can swing a vacation somewhere remote, might not be a bad idea.

2) Understanding how small Earth is

-One common profound sentiment expressed by many astronauts that has further spurned their dedication to space exploration was seeing their planet as a ball in space. Granted the full impact of this is best felt in orbit, the images released from these perspectives have elicited similar results in people the world over.

The best way I can think of replicating this easily nowadays to a young mind would be to do this:

  • Using Google Earth/maps or cesiumjs find your house and make sure your kid knows that that is their house.
  • Then slowly and constantly zoom out
  • After you get past Earth, now would be a good time to show images of the solar system. There are also similar models for the moon and Mars.
  • From here there are star sphere model apps that you can use to show the night sky... For a 7 year old I would recommend one with with artful outlines of the constellations.

3) Maybe some spaceflight videos.

4) Maybe the historical/mythological stories of constellations. Things tend to have more importance/impact to us when we are able to relate to them more. So instead of 'just another star' it's 'Betelgeuse of the constellation Orion the hunter'.

At this point, what matters most is what aspects have captivated your kids curiosity and interest which can be best gauged by the questions they raise or what they express they want to see next or more of.

  • If they liked rockets blasting off then perhaps chemistry experiments such as mentos and soda bottles. You can reinforce science and math here by having them figure optimal levels of ingredients to get the most height.

My point with all of this is:

It's all about their curiosity and interest which is fundamentally the hardest part of education. It can be damaging, painful, and costly jumping deep into the math and science aspects without having the underlying motivation to pursue them.

I will conclude this one final tip. A cheap yet overwhelmingly effective psychological trick to spurning someone's interest in something, especially a child, especially your own child, is to be both enthusiastic and knowledgeable in the subject you are trying to teach. We are psychologically hard wired to express interest in something another human is expressing interest in. Granted it can be draining for many to maintain this energy about something for long periods of time.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with point 1: a large part of learning is enthusiasm about a topic which can begin with a couple nights camping in an area with low light pollution so you can see the milky way and many stars. Also useful to participate at an observatory during a meteor shower. $\endgroup$ – Dan Sorensen Jul 12 '18 at 19:58
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In addition to Tom Spilker's excellent answer, I'd suggest for the digital natives of today there are some excellent computer programs that can supplement a kid's education.

Celestia and Spaceengine are two excellent programs that allow you to explore wherever you want in the universe.

As someone said in the comments, Kerbal space program would certainly provide entertainment, but education-wise it would probably teach them more how not to build a rocket than anything space related.

Showing them things in the telescope is a good start, but if you teach them how to use one and leave them to find objects themselves, then that's so much more effective.

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