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Glenn Chaple’s Observing Basics: Teen triumphs

March 2011: Against the odds, some of today’s teens stay strong in their love for astronomy.
Glenn Chaple
In my September 2010 column, I lamented the high dropout rate among young astronomy enthusiasts as they approach adulthood. A number of readers responded, mostly teenage amateur astronomers within whom the spark of interest is still alive. Their numbers may be few, but they’re out there eagerly pointing telescopes skyward and sharing their cosmic adventures with their peers.

One of these youthful astronomy ambassadors is Spencer Kirkham of Ladera Ranch, California. He writes: “I am 14 and still strongly interested in astronomy from being introduced to it at age 11. I know several teens in my area that enjoy coming over to my house to look through my 4-inch telescope at various stars and planets. I really love looking at Jupiter and its Galilean moons. Three of my five younger siblings (ages 6, 8, and 10) also love to use my telescope, although they need help aiming it.”
 
Not all astronomical disciples enjoy such instant success. Anthony Scott, age 15, from Medina, Ohio, describes some of the pitfalls he has to overcome when attempting to share his hobby. “I have tried to get friends interested by showing them the night sky,” he writes, “but it has failed because I don’t have enough flashy equipment to keep them away from their nighttime videogame marathons.”
 
Cloudy nights are another obstacle for Anthony. “Bad weather, which can delay your astronomical plans for days, is simply unacceptable to the teen generation used to TiVo-ing every program they like and downloading whatever music they want in 30 seconds,” he writes. “ ‘Well, we can try again tomorrow’ is unacceptable to them.”
 
A junior astronomer who has successfully fended off “nerd fear” is 13-year-old Megan Nininger of Columbus, Ohio. Despite occasional chiding from some of her classmates, she notes: “I too am very interested in astronomy, as I have been since the second grade. I have two telescopes probably not that good compared to yours and others at Astronomy magazine, but they work for me as long as I can see my favorite planet Saturn!” (Memo to Megan: Check out next month’s “Observing Basics.”)
Brandon-Doyle
Brandon Doyle, age 15, discovered his interest in astronomy through a middle school program. Today, Brandon uses his 10-inch Dobsonian for imaging and sketching. Jim Doyle
At her young age, Megan already has experienced the frustration of light pollution. “When I go out on good nights with my telescope,” she writes, “I usually stay outside for 3 hours or so until my mom comes out to make sure I’m alright, turns on the lights, and ruins my night vision!”
 
Brandon Doyle, age 15, of Albion, New York, is a prime example of the positive influence a dedicated public school teacher, supportive parents, and a local astronomy club can have on a teenage astronomer. “The Explorations Program in the middle school is run by a man named Mr. Keller, and he has already purchased through a grant a 10-inch Dobsonian and five 6-inch Dobsonians. He’s the person who first inspired me to get into astronomy.” Brandon adds, “My father took me to a meeting of the Astronomy Section of the Rochester Academy of Science, and the skies were clear. There’s nothing like a sweet summer night at a 20-inch telescope with a bunch of people who are very encouraging and knowledgeable about the sky.”
 
By the way, Brandon has set up a website dedicated to his interests in astronomy and model rocketry. Some of the deep-sky sketches he posts are truly impressive. You can check them out at http://brandon-doyle.weebly.com.
 
Finally, some words from Miranda Maille, a Texas Tech student who survived teenage astronomy angst: “As a child, after seeing Jupiter with a telescope for the first time, I began to believe that astronomy was my calling. But as I approached high school age, I developed a fear of mathematics and started college as a Spanish major. A little more than a semester into my university career, I enrolled in a general astronomy course and it all came back to me. My school doesn’t currently offer an astronomy major, but a professor I had is fighting to create at least a minor and to glean interest in astronomy amongst students. A friend and I are also planning on starting an astronomy club. We’ve seen some new college students go from totally disinterested to devout observers.”

Recalling her own start, Miranda adds, “I want to be the person who gives children their first taste of the beauty of Jupiter.”

I’m sure Miranda would agree when I tell young astronomers like Spencer, Anthony, Megan, and Brandon, “Hang in there, and don’t be discouraged.” We adults owe it to our hobby to extend astronomy outreach to middle and high school students. They are the future of amateur astronomy.

Questions, comments, or suggestions? E-mail me at gchaple@hotmail.com. Next month: a special telescope. Clear skies!
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