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Observing with my local Cub Pack


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Last night I took the scope along to my sons cub pack to help out with their astronomy badge. It was the first time I'd observed with kids (apart from my own) so I thought I'd share what I learned in case anyone else is doing a similar thing in the future.

Note: I was using a 12" dob, so a lot of the comments relate to that.

Group size - Two or three at a time was ideal - any more than that and the ones not at the eyepiece start getting bored (and cold) and start fidgeting (sometimes in a scope-threatening way).

The Rules - I realised fairly quickly that with kids this age you need to lay down the law with each group right at the beginning - no touching / bumping the scope - no shouting down the end of it - stand well clear of the scope when not at the eyepiece - no rummaging in the eyepiece case etc...

Cubs are small - Luckily their were enough low down targets - Jupiter, Albireo, Ring Nebula - but none of them were tall enough (even with the step I brought) to see anything near zenith - so unfortunately none of them got to see Andromeda last night. At one point, after one of them had asked what the little group of stars above Jupiter was, I pointed the scope at the Pleiades- big mistake - the eyepiece was at a height that some of them could reach and others couldn't - lots of cries of "I can't see it" etc.

Balancing on a step is harder than you think - If you are using a step then you need to gently steady them by holding their arm as they step up, step down, and as they approach the eyepiece. More then once one of them felt a bit unsteady and reached out for the nearest thing to grab. Make sure the nearest thing to grab is you... not the expensive thing mounted on a freely rotating platform... you get the picture.

Teach them how to look through the eyepiece - the two biggest problems were them approaching the EP too quickly, hitting it with their face and knocking the scope off target (particularly on Jupiter on higher mag) and secondly breathing all over the eyepiece and fogging it up.

Analogies work - The one that went down best was the "if Jupiter was the size of a watermelon, Earth would be the size of a cherry tomato" - they all got that.

You hear "Wow" quite a lot - this was one of the most satisfying parts - "Wow - I can see the stripes"

Parents - it was great to let the parents have a look when they came to pick the kids up - lots more wows, both for Jupiter and Andromeda.

All in all it was really enjoyable - I would definitely recommend that you volunteer to help out with something similar if you are able to. Who knows if one of those cubs will go on to study astronomy / make important discoveries etc just because one night someone rocked up at their cub session and let them see how awesome space is.

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Well done for your demo.

Very brave taking them in the dark, cos they really need watching.

I have helped scouts & ventures in the past with their mechanics badge.

Once while getting kit out of my car, I had one helpful scout, out of my sight line, lift a car battery.

Before I realised what was going on, he put it on his shoulder, on it's side dribbling acid!

It was a traditional lead acid battery with vent/top up points.

A quick visit to the scout hut kitchen. Shirt into the sink and rinse him off! No harm done to him or his unform.

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Its really good to see people out demonstrating to young people, we try to do as much as we can in my society (Usk AS) in S.Wales, we have a mobile planetarium as well as scopes etc. and do around 40 events a year. With telescopic demos, for both adults and kids, I find that certain objects work much better than others i.e big and bright and low mag is not too demanding on observing skills. Having siad that Jupiter, which needs reasonably high mag is always a favourite. Although I have reflectors I always demonstrate with a refractor, small people can use them much more easily and seem to understand them more, reflecting telescopes are too counter intuitive and also to high for many. With kids always have a second adult to marshall them is a good tip. Using a green laser to point stuff out is also really useful to engage those waiting to look through the scope. In my experience best objects are the moon, saturn is a knockout and Jupiter is great, the rest of the planets are too difficult for most. M31 and the double cluster, M13 are all good but most other deep sky objects can be a challenge for novices to appreciate. During daylight hours the sun is a fabulous object to look at with the right kit and many are really surprised that it can be observed. The best bit for me is seeing the amazement on peoples faces the first time they see the rings of saturn for example - priceless.

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I'm glad you wrote about this, because I've been "booked in" by my cub leaders to do something similar early next year. I was planning on some exercise in the hut first of all to show them why planets are in a particular part of the sky, etc. I was going to use the cubs themselves to act out the solar system (not to scale), and show why things are in the sky, and why we have the 12 astrology constellations etc. (its a shame that kids know Pisces not from what it looks like in the sky, but rather what Russell Grunt has told them in the newspapers!)

I was going to then go out and get them to see perhaps 3 objects - Jupiter, perhaps Peledies, and the Orion Nebula were my thoughts. Maybe the moon if its up and about when I go.

You make a good point about kids getting bored while they wait around to see. I had just thought they could all queue up or something. Perhaps not! I think that some activity in the hut while I take out some 3-4 kids to look through the scope at a time. I didn't think at all about a step for them to stand on either! Good one!

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Mr Ploppy .... For the indoor activity they made 'constellations' by sticking silver stars on black paper and drawing the lines in white chinagraph pencil - they each made 3 sheets by choosing from the usual suspects and copying the patterns from some pre-done sheets

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On the subject of step ladders I have been into this for public outreach events at our community observatory. For a 10 or 12" dob a 3 step set of D1 rated heavy duty steps are usually fine they must have a high position handle and side runners to hold. I have found the Abru heavy duty version (not the domestic ones) to be correctly rated and very sturdy with a large top platform. Select ground that is level, and make certain you have a red light to shine on the steps and eyepiece. 'Hold the ladder not the telescope' is my mantra! I often find it is better to leave the ladder in place with individuals that are tall enough to view. It gives them something to hold and keep themselves steady.

Parents/group leaders should be informed in advance that some use of steps could be required. Parents or group leader should be close by during observing. Sadly I must also advise caution in direct contact with observers unless this is to avoid some physical injury such as falling off a ladder (in which case it is classed as a reasonable action.)

I have CRB enhanced clearance as do the majority of demonstrators that work with me. Other demonstrators are deemed to be working under my direction and so are also accepted by most school and community groups. (take care on this). Scout leaders etc will be CRB cleared so you can operate under their direction if you do not have clearance yourself but make them aware of this.

It is also important to remember that you could have a disabled observer so I tend to keep a small 6" dob or refractor handy that can be used from a wheelchair for at least some objects.

Last tips, if you are lucky enough to operate from a really dark site, pick a night when there will be some Moonlight if you are working with a group that have not used telescopes before. Always have a fall back plan in case it is cloudy, near by room for talk, demo etc.

The main thing is follow simple guidelines and a great time can be had by all, as observers we get real pleasure in bringing views of the night sky to a group of youngsters, our last event was 175 lower school pupils who all got to see Jupiter, the Moon and various other objects...Fantastic!

Best wishes,


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