Students at CU Boulder are bringing the entire universe to your backyard, well, at least a portable and inflatable version of the cosmos.
For eight years, undergrads at the university have traveled across Colorado to visit elementary, middle and high schools in towns from Julesburg in the north to San Luis in the south.
And they bring with them an unusual learning environment: a portable planetarium.
In this space, which looks a bit like a bouncy house, the CU Boulder students have the entire cosmos at their fingertips. With the flick of the switch, they can take groups of school children on trips from the moons of Saturn to the fringes of the known universe—and back again.
“We have this software that can take us anywhere in the universe to look at all of the planets and galaxies,” said Richard Sheppard, an undergraduate studying astronomy at CU Boulder. “Sometimes, I’ll be talking, but I can’t get through anything because everyone’s hands will be up.”
That voyage through space is one part of the CU Science, Technology and Astronomy Recruits (CU-STARs) program.
CU Boulder’s Erica Ellingson launched the project in 2011, with support from a CU Boulder Outreach Award, with a simple goal in mind: to help CU Boulder students share their love of all-things space with kids across Colorado.
“That interaction is really electric,” said Ellingson, a professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. “Every school we go to, I learn a little bit more by meeting these K-12 students and seeing how my own students adapt and thrive in these situations.”
And it’s just one of many ways that members of the CU Boulder community are getting away from campus and into towns and cities around Colorado and beyond. Students and faculty members have also helped low-income residents to file their income tax returns, protected stretches of Amazonian rainforest and much more. Learn more about outreach projects at CU Boulder.
Sheppard, who will start his senior year in the fall, is a prime ambassador for these efforts. He grew up in rural Canada and attended high school in Iowa, where his opportunities to learn about stars and planets were, he said, “a complete zero.”
Now, the student sees it as his duty to give kids in Colorado towns the chance to experience the same excitement he feels when he looks through a telescope.
“I think that’s a big motivation for a lot of us,” Sheppard said. “We have the opportunity to teach some kids about astronomy who hadn’t had the opportunity before.”
Holly Christensen is a middle and high school teacher in Julesburg, a town that the CU-STARs students visited in spring 2019. She said that it was a great chance to expose the kids in her community, a three-hour drive from the museums and planetariums of the Front Range, to something new.
“A large percentage of students from our school never get the opportunity to travel and experience any of these activities,” said Christensen. “So for it to come to us and expose students to new and exciting learning opportunities is everything to me as a teacher.”
Ellingson, for her part, gets a thrill out of watching students like Sheppard, whom she calls her “stars,” build their confidence. She explained that, when she was a young woman, it took her years to start viewing herself as a real scientist.
A large percentage of students from our school never get the opportunity to travel and experience any of these activities, so for it to come to us and expose students to new and exciting learning opportunities is everything to me as a teacher.”
–Holly Christensen, middle and high school teacher in Julesburg
“I not only see my students gain confidence in themselves, through the joy of being able to explain this thing that they love,” she said. “But I also see the students they teach have a second look at science.”
And, she said, gazing up at the stars is fun—a way for people of all ages to kindle their love of science.
On some trips, her students will stay in the towns they visit after dark to set up telescopes in football fields and parking lots. Entire families will show up to those events just to get a peek at the cosmos.
“There’s something truly wonderful about standing around in the dark looking at the stars together,” she said. “There’s something anciently human about it.”