Raising New Scientists: Kelsey Johnson and the Dark Skies, Bright Kids! Program

At my recent conference experience, I had the distinct privilege of meeting Kelsey Johnson, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia. Apart from her natural sense of humor and deep knowledge of astronomy and the early universe, Dr. Johnson is a writer in her spare time. She writes both fiction and non-fiction, and mentioned a current project of writing a non-fiction book to teach parents how to raise scientifically-literate, inquisitive children. We spent a fair amount of time one evening discussing the topic, and later I discovered that she has also started a non-profit program in Virginia to help bring more astronomy into children’s lives.

Dark Skies, Bright Kids! is a volunteer-run program founded to try to add to children’s existing science education in a way that both highlights astronomical concepts, and teaches them that learning science is fun. Dr. Johnson says it best in her interview with University of Virginia radio station WTJU’s Soundboard program: she hopes Dark Skies, Bright Kids! can teach kids that science isn’t about memorizing the textbook or taking tests; it’s about play. She touches on a really important phenomenon in science education, namely that kids start out in life curious, exploring their worlds, but later on often learn that science is boring, dry, or even scary.

This is something that I’ve mentioned before on this space and thought about on my own beyond that. So much of science outreach is aimed at “making science fun” for the target audience, but what if we could find a way to help developing minds maintain a mental association between their natural curiosity and scientific exploration? We wouldn’t need to correct the idea that science is boring because we wouldn’t let that idea take hold in the first place. To that end, Dark Skies, Bright Kids! offers after school programs, a summer camp, and even a website of resources for parents to create lesson plans or projects to do with their kids outside of school.

I’ve written before about how my first lesson on quantum mechanics came from a 10-year-old boy that I met as a counselor at a drama camp when I was in high school. Children are absolutely interested in science and want to explore, and having programs outside of classroom formalism is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to nurture this natural curiosity. And maybe by raising kids who don’t think science is scary or boring, we could find ourselves living in a world in the future where more people wanted to learn and understand scientific ideas from a multitude of disciplines.

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