Argenta Price ’06 and a group of seventh-graders are looking at the night sky. It’s a typical astronomy lesson, except for one tiny difference — she and the students aren’t actually sitting outside. And those aren’t actual stars.
Instead, Price and the class of middle schoolers are staring at the ceiling of a 16-by-11, inflatable mini-planetarium standing in the center of Sheridan Middle School’s auditorium. It may not be the real thing, but the students are duly impressed.
“Now that’s what I call stars,” one boy declares.
Price and the three other students who set up the planetarium are members of DEMOS, an organization of undergraduate volunteers that helps teach basic science in New Haven public schools. Now in its 17th year, DEMOS — short for “Demonstrations in Science” — gives students exposure to scientific concepts and experiments they might not otherwise encounter, co-director Loretta Li ’04 said.
“[During school], they get English and they get math, but they might not necessarily get science,” Li said. “Even if they aren’t going to be scientists, these are basic life skills everyone can use.”
Price, who joined DEMOS this year, agreed that the program provides key enrichment to kids at an early age.
“Schools really focus on reading, writing and math, which is good, but that kind of leaves kids like ‘Oh, science is scary and hard,’ not with ‘Science is really cool; it’s how the world works,'” Price said. “It’s really important to get kids excited about science early on.”
Li said one way to get kids interested is to make lessons as hands-on as possible. Exactly 75 DEMOS volunteers visit local classrooms in pairs each week to lead projects like making silly putty or building a model of DNA. Afterward, the Yalies guide the students, mostly third- and fifth-graders, in discussions of basic scientific concepts. The group also holds interactive science sessions for elementary school students once a week after school.
Starlab, as the $13,000 inflatable planetarium is called, is a recent addition to DEMOS’ repertoire. Like all of the group’s projects, it is funded entirely by grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
DEMOS co-director Brendan Cohen ’05 said he’s already seen how much Starlab, which takes 10 minutes to set up, enhances the group’s ability to teach students about the stars and constellations.
“If you can’t bring the kids out at night, it’s really difficult to teach astronomy. This is a fantastic way to make it much easier to visualize,” he said.
An astronomy major, Cohen added that he’s even received requests from professors in the Astronomy Department to let them use Starlab for their introductory classes.
As the Sheridan students sat in Starlab Thursday, Cohen, Li, Price and Daniel Winik ’07 pointed out constellations like Orion and Scorpio and demonstrated how the stars move over the course of the night. They also explained how light pollution affects the number of stars that that are visible.
“When you turn off the lights all the way, the kids are like, ‘Ooh, wow,’ because they’ve never seen the night sky without city lights,” Price said.
Starlab’s next public appearance will be Dec. 6 at SciQuest, a full day of science experiments and projects at Dwight Hall that DEMOS is organizing for New Haven third- to fifth-graders and their parents. After that, Starlab will make the rounds of the 30 city classrooms DEMOS volunteers visit each week — an activity Li said she hopes will inspire the students to take a better look at the real thing.
“They can see the constellations every night,” she said. “After this, they might go out and really look at them.”