Monday 4 January 2010

Congratulations Stellar190: Young Astronomy website

Just a quick break from a long Christmassy silence to announce a new website: Young Astronomers, one of whose new writers is Stellar. As they explain, it's still under construction, but I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with. So far they have had two brief reviews of 2009, its achievements, and like in the meeting last month a strong emphasis on how the project isn't over: "In no way is all the astronomy fun of the IYA “over”, just the official celebration, we will still continue with all of your favorite projects, and surely the astronomical community will continue to grow!" And today I saw their first article written by a young editor: Cities of Stars by Stellar.

I'm delighted to see more and more online material available for young people, involving them as well as informing. Recently, someone wrote on the Galaxy Zoo Forum: "No one takes 14 year olds seriously" - meaning he or she did not expect their input to be accurate or valuable. It was fortunate that back in the 1930's somebody did expect just that: a young boy named Patrick Moore had been left in charge of an observatory for many nights, had discovered several new craters on the Moon, and had written up his findings in a paper. He submitted it and it was accepted for publication, but he thought he should tell them that he was not exactly ancient. The reply came back: "I note that you are only 14 years old. I don't see that this is relevant."

A few days ago I was in despair at the headline "Boys aged three 'must work more'", and would like to suggest two things to the government. Firstly I suggest that they personally tell every three-year-old boy in the country to work more, and stick around to see that he does. Secondly, I wish to challenge the meaning of "the gender gap". I know this sounds a bit rich from someone very into She's an Astronomer, but most of these barriers are probably only there because children are forced along by age, not by readiness or individual strengths and weaknesses. This is not only cruel, but it shores up more problems later: for instance, someone who isn't good at maths but terrific at (or at least has potential in) writing, or vice versa, or some other combination, may be denied all opportunities because the one hoop they haven't jumped through holds them up. It doesn't occur to teachers to let children who don't do brilliantly at exams try out the extras (or rather, they fear that instead of giving the poor kids a break and some self-esteem, such activities would only "be a burden" and "waste valuable exam preparation time".) I wonder how many more young Patrick Moores we're losing because they learnt to write their name at six rather than at three?

In citizen science, there are no barriers. Age does not matter: a teenager can work alongside a grandparent. I didn't get into it until I was 25, but because it wasn't commandeered by targets, that matters not at all. I see no reason not only why the school genius can't make a terrific contribution to science communication or to astronomy, but the average or bored pupil as well. Astronomy, and science done rather than memorized and examined, is for everybody. So well done to all these wonderful new websites coming out, and may they reach anyone who's ready!

No comments: