A Celebration of Science, Technology, and Space: The White House hosted its second Astronomy Night (#AstronomyNight) on October 19th to large audience of students and teachers. The south lawn had numerous telescopes set up, a portable planetarium, and several displays, exhibits, activities, and events.
During the President's opening remarks, he introduced the long list of special guests, and told the story of the curiosity of a young Carl Sagan (a personal hero of mine). He went on to describe the stories of young Americans in attendance with the same kind of adventurous spirit, and to watch for that, cultivate it, and encourage curiosity - not suppress it.
— NASASunEarth (@NASASunEarth) October 19, 2015
The star-studded cast of guests included:
- Planetary Society CEO, Bill Nye - The Science Guy
- Mae Jameson, the first African-American woman in space
- NASA Administrator, Charlie Bolden
- Presidential science advisor, John Holdren
- NASA Deputy Administrator, Dava Newman
- Members of Congress, including Senator Bill Nelson, former astronaut
- NASA Associate Administrator for Science, John Grunsfeld
- RCS Rocketry Champions of Russellville, Alabama- first place winners in the America and International Rocketry Challenges
- The Mythbusters
- NASA's commercial crew astronauts, currently training for future space missions on commercial spacecraft, launched within the U.S.
The President discussed his "Educate to Innovate" campaign, and his administration's work to encourage kids to enter STEM fields, and his goal of training 100,000 new STEM teachers by the end of the decade. He also announced new commitments, by cities and organizations all over the U.S. to expose even more students and their parents to STEM education. Numerous STEM-related displays and exhibits were set up to do just that, including executive producers Adrian and Ezequiel from Squad, the makers of award-winning app Kerbal Space Program - which was recognized as being not only a video game, but a useful tool to inspire children to pursue scientific careers.
Before the evening's events, the President got a chance to speak with the crew of the International Space Station during the day. The ISS crew obliged with a photo of Washington DC during the event that night:
Astronomy Night at the White House is simply a fantastic way to get the public interested in astronomy! I would highly encourage the White House to make this event a tradition, and host it much more often, possibly in conjunction with the Astronomical League's fall Astronomy Day event. (And maybe you can work on the DC light pollution...)
I've been told that I'm passionate about Astronomy. I got that way because I experienced astronomy as a child, and continued to experience it throughout my teenage years; I had a cheap telescope, with a scary green glass solar filter, and a LOT of astronomy and space books. I can only imagine the direction I might have taken, had I known about astronomy clubs, and had the assistance of knowledgeable amateur astronomers; I hope to be that guy that helps the next generation of young people embrace amateur astronomy.
More: Sky and Telescope has an article about the Astronomy Night event, with excellent coverage of the first Astronomy Night, held in 2009.
The commentary below is mine alone, and does not necessarily reflect that of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, or any other persons or entities:
I'm thrilled to see so many STEM initiatives being implemented, I really want to be a part of it. But a lot of the STEM programs I'm seeing are after-school, and voluntary. I was discussing this with my daughter as I was writing this article. Paraphrasing her comments:
High school didn't teach me any of this stuff; the only reason I know anything about astronomy and space is because of you and mom. I didn't learn how to live in society, how to cook a meal, how to balance a checkbook, how to look for a job, how to buy a car. This STEM stuff is cool, but it needs to be taught DURING school, and made MANDATORY.
Michigan has seen a growing shortage of teachers; I read just this morning about a critical shortage of substitute teachers, and Michigan is not the only state this is occurring in. My wife, an extraordinary science teacher, has mirrored the comments of legions of other teachers who are quitting the teaching profession out of frustration at having to "Teach to the Test," lack of funds for supplies, lack of support for "Mainstreamed" students, teacher evaluations based on student test scores, charter school scandals, inflexible "Count Day" funding policies with a fluid student body due to being a "School of Choice" state, high cost of tuition for required continuing education courses, and rampant teacher-blaming. My wife cannot in good conscience recommend new teachers enter into the teaching profession, and that makes both of us very forlorn indeed.
Training and retaining tens of thousands of new STEM teachers, and implementing effective STEM initiatives in such an environment will be a herculean challenge.