Brody and Noah Phetteplace of Avon were over the moon. Actually, they were under it and spinning it as fast as they could.
The brothers, 6 and 8, respectively, had just come across a 5-foot-diameter scale model of the moon mounted on a huge gimbal inside a geodesic dome. It’s part of the Boston Children’s Museum’s newest exhibit, “My Sky,” a collaboration among the museum, NASA, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The immersive installation, designed to help young children and their parents practice science through everyday astronomical observation, opened recently.
The boys’ mother, Kelly, said she and her husband, Robert, had taken the boys to the beach to get a good look at last month’s supermoon.
“They do look at the stars,” she said, “but they make everything exercise.” And the kids like it that way.
That’s part of the key to “My Sky.” The exhibit, accompanied by a comprehensive website, features three main areas: a “skate park” in which children can track the path of the sun with a human sundial, a backyard campsite meant to replicate stargazing nights, and a child’s bedroom with activities that help kids identify (and name) the constellations.
In simplest terms, the aim of the exhibit is to encourage kids to “look up!” NASA’s Andrea Razzaghi, deputy director of astrophysics, noted in a press conference on the exhibit that ambitious current missions such as the spacecraft Juno (which is scheduled to begin orbiting Jupiter in 2016) and New Horizons (the space probe currently en route to Pluto) “all were born from accomplishments that started by people looking up.”
Most kids have notions about what we see in the sky that are not so very different from the views held by the ancients, said Philip Sadler, who heads the science education department of the Center for Astrophysics . They think we can’t see the moon in the daytime; they think we need a telescope to see the planets. His own second-grader, he noted with a laugh, recently asked whether a rocket needs to pass through a door in the sky to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
“They’re not just little adults,” he joked. “They’re a whole different species.”
Turning serious, Sadler said he hopes the exhibit will inspire the children who will fill his astronomy classes as young adults a few years from now.
Renske Velner, 11, visiting Boston with her family from the Netherlands, has been intrigued about our galaxy since she viewed Jupiter and Mars through a powerful telescope back home about a year ago. “She even talks sometimes about being an astronomer,” said her mother, Marieke.
Children’s Museum president Carole Charnow recalled her own upbringing in Detroit and her fascination with the skies. Stargazing in her hometown then, she believes, was perhaps better than now because there was less man-made light emanating from the city.
“We used to spend a lot of time lying on the grass looking at the sky,” she said. Later, the man she married would work for 18 years at the Center for Astrophysics.
“To me, this is a personal passion,” Charnow said.
Razzaghi, who traveled from Washington, D.C., for the event, also recalled the pure joy of stargazing as a child.
‘I remember those big questions: Really, what is out there? The concept of infinity was mind-blowing to me as a kid — just how small we are, in size, but also time-wise.’
“I remember those big questions: Really, what is out there?” she said. “The concept of infinity was mind-blowing to me as a kid — just how small we are, in size, but also time-wise.”
“My Sky” is the result of several years of planning, with the Children’s Museum submitting a winning proposal after NASA put out a call for ideas for educational opportunities. After being selected to receive federal funding, the museum worked on the design with the Center for Astrophysics.
Engaging with the museum staff has helped the team at the center think more clearly about explaining complicated ideas in understandable terms, said Mary Dussault, who is part of the center’s science education department.
“The museum folks certainly have a knack for making subject matter accessible, and finding engaging ways to introduce it,” Dussault said in a phone conversation a few days before the unveiling. “Astronomy can be an intimidating topic, but they’re really good at identifying the ways parents and kids can connect to it.”
Besides tapping the skills and experience of the museum staff, the team also consulted directly with those other experts: children.
One girl wanted to know why the constellations are named after characters — Andromeda, Orion, Cygnus — no one hears about anymore. Forget the ancient Greeks, she thought. The cluster should be called just what it looks like: Broccoli Pants.
“That made me very happy,” said Tim Porter, the exhibit project director, at an unveiling a few days before the exhibit opened. Such interaction helped Porter and his team get inside the minds of children when they think about the sky above.
“Astronomy is hard to grasp, literally and figuratively,” said Porter, who helped steer the museum’s concept. “But we feel like we really hit on something pretty good with ‘My Sky.’ We’re pretty sure there’s no other exhibit like it out there.”
At one station, visitors are encouraged to identify various phenomena occurring on the surface of the sun — solar flares, or “coronal mass ejections” — as they view breathtaking satellite footage of the fireball in action. In the bedroom area, children can create celestial music by “sonifying” data, converting it to sound — as does a real-life blind astrophysicist from Puerto Rico. Her pioneering work with pattern recognition is introduced to visitors virtually as part of the exhibit.
At the desk, there’s an orrery (“one of our least-favorite words,” joked Porter), a mechanical model of the solar system that children can manipulate to match the images they see out the window in a simulated night sky.
“We hope the two perspectives help kids begin to understand how the phases of the moon happen,” said Porter.
“We’re encouraging kids to observe things and notice patterns,” he said. “We’re getting them to participate in scientific behavior and hone their science skills.”
Like Porter, Dussault grew up in upstate New York. “The Big Dipper was right over my barn,” she said.
She went to Wellesley thinking maybe she’d major in chemistry, “but I started spilling too many chemicals. I decided astronomy was safer.”
“My Sky” is intended to make astronomy feel safe and appealing to kids. Signs posted around the exhibit’s stations share a heading: “It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist.”
It doesn’t take one, but it could make a few.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.