Rio Hondo brings back hit Astronomy Night!
Is there life on other planets? That’s the question Astrophysicist and Chief Technologist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Dr. Nick Siegler is tasked with answering at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada. At Rio Hondo School in El Monte City School District, his mission is planting the seed of curiosity in the minds of young students. “We’re not just in the rockets and space business, we’re in the inspiration business,” said Dr. Siegler as he was preparing for his presentation to eager Rio Hondo students and families.
This was the school’s 8th Astronomy Night, and first since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “After 8 years, I feel the event has grown so much,” explained Diana Elliott, teacher and original orchestrator of her school's cosmic carnival. “It was a lot of work to bring this back and I had lost the Astronomy Night organizing habit and routine, so I was unsure and not very confident if the event would be well attended.” Her uncertainties were not evident as Rio Hondo held one of its largest Astronomy Night crowds, attracting students and families from all throughout EMCSD and neighboring communities.
Activity booths were stationed throughout the campus and lessons were run by 7th and 8th graders. Attendees could participate in an array of activities like engineering an aluminum foil boat, learning about planetary alignments, and identifying moon phases. “My main motivation was to spark the kids’ interest in Astronomy,” said Mrs. Elliot. “The goal is to make astronomy and science more interesting and engaging by creating a carnival atmosphere with Star Wars music, characters, and prizes so kids would be motivated to visit and participate in the student leader booths.”
Guests also got to see NASA’s “Search for Life” presentation with Dr. Siegler. He then held a Q&A covering topics about the vastness of the universe to space umbrellas, and a specific question he was hoping to hear, “how can I do what you do?”
Dr. Siegler shared that NASA and the engineering field is in need of more minority and female representation, hence why he was excited to speak at Rio Hondo. “What a lot of kids don’t realize, the path to a job at NASA or any of the great aerospace companies is not a mystery. I didn’t say it was easy, but it is not a mystery,” explained Siegler. “It’s not just for white people or rich people, anyone can get to these companies and it’s not a secret. You need to do well in school [math and sciences], go on to college, major in a science or engineering. Then get a summer job in one of these companies because we are always hiring, and it almost always works.”
Sielger also told parents and guardians how important their role is in guiding their children towards these professions. “I had great parents, but they didn’t know that their kid could become a scientist,” said Siegler. “My passion was to become an astrophysicist, I wanted to do it since I was 10 years old and my parents just said ‘don’t be ridiculous’. I’m proud that I had the courage in my 30s to go back to school even though I didn’t have the encouragement.”
The icing on the cake for Rio Hondo’s Astronomy Night were the telescopes. Each year, Mrs. Elliott coordinates with volunteers from the Los Angeles Astronomical Society to bring telescopes to campus so students can see craters on the moon, Jupiter’s bands, and the rings of Saturn. Lines spread throughout the playground as attendees were hoping to get a glimpse of the other occupants in our solar system.
Mrs. Elliott believes other schools in the district should consider hosting their own Astronomy Night. “It’s important because Astronomy should be enjoyed by all kids and their families, not just the more affluent ones. I believe it may also encourage kids to consider following a career path in a science field that has typically been dominated by white men.” As for future Astronomy Nights, Mrs. Elliott is hoping to recruit even more student leadership so they can bring in newer ideas on how to elevate and expand the event.