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How looking skyward provides family fun and a passion for science

  • The Goulette sisters, Krystyna, 6, foreground, LeeAnna, 8, left, and Kaitlynn, 10, right, demonstrate how to line up a telescope using a finderscope during daylight hours in preparation for stargazing on the grass of their Westfield home. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • 6-year-old Krystyna Goulette demonstrates how to line up a telescope during daylight hours in preparation for stargazing on the grass of her Westfield home. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • From left to right, Kaitlynn Goulette her and parents Don Goulette and Joy Goulette look through a photo album of places their family has gone for astronomy events. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Stargazing has spurred a love for sceince in Kaitlynn Goulette and her sisters. Kaitlynn completed a year-long educational program online last year about double stars. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Alfred J. Venne, museum educator at Amherst College, uses a yardstick to demonstrate how sunlight strikes the Earth on a small scale model of the solar system inside the Bassett Planetarium in Morgan Hall on campus. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Bassett Planetarium at Amherst College. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • LeeAnna Goulette holds a pinhole camera at the Stellafane Convention. Contributed photo

  • The Goulette family at the 2017 Stellafane Convention for amateur astronomers held annually in Springfield, Vermont. They enjoy taking science-related trips together. Contributed photo

  • The Goulette family. From left to right, LeeAnna, Don, Krystyna, Kaitlynn, and Joy Goulette, in the yard of their Westfield home. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo



@AndyCCastillo
Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Five years ago, Joy Goulette’s mother gave Goulette’s young family a subscription to the Springfield Science Museum as a Christmas gift.

A planetarium show there prompted her, her husband and their three daughters to join the Amherst Area Amateur Astronomy Association. That led to a family trip last year to Tennessee, a prime place to see the eclipse, and a passion in the kids who now collect scientists’ autographs.

"For me, it was important to get them involved with science, because of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)," — the push to get children interested in those fields — said Goulette, an engineer at Verizon, one recent evening. She was standing on the lawn at the family’s Westfield home in front of three telescopes. Husband, Don Goulette, and Kaitlynn, 10, LeeAnna, 8, and Krystyna, 6 were with her.

“It seemed a good avenue to go, not only for science and education, but family time,” added Don.

Every clear night when they’re not busy, they take out their telescopes, point them skyward, and wait for darkness to settle in, Don said. They track planets, survey constellations and learn about the science of space in a way that brings them all together. The kids, he says, love it. So much so that Kaitlynn completed a year-long program identifying and learning about double stars, which appear as one star to the naked eye, and received a certificate for her efforts from the Amherst astronomy club.

And, she got to show off her knowledge a little bit. During a lecture at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester in 2014, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson called on her to answer questions about space in front of a large audience.

And, it has put LeAnna on a career path. “I want to be a teacher in space, or, I want to be a teacher who teaches about space,” she said later, inside the house.

Easy vehicle

Astronomy, says Alfred Venne, museum educator at Amherst College, is an easy vehicle for fun family time and for parents to introduce abstract concepts to their kids because it's a combination of knowns and unkowns.

In his role, Venne is in charge of outreach for the school’s Beneski Museum of Natural History, and oversees the Bassett Planetarium in Morgan Hall. It is equipped with a Spitz A3p optical projector that shines pinpricks of light that look like stars onto a dome, and a small model of the solar system called an orrery.

Questions about space, such as is there life on other planets? “opens up a universe, literally, of possibilities about what might be out there," Venne said.

And within the science of space, which he says is always tentative and changes based on the newest research available, there’s room for a child’s imagination to run wild.

At the planetarium, to direct this enthusiasm, Venne has developed teaching techniques that both encourage expansive thinking and help build a concrete understanding of basic science, in a fun way, such as asking kids to draw their vision of the solar systems and create their own constellation patterns.

Venne, who grew up in Northampton, remembers his first visit to the Amherst College planetarium while a student at JFK Middle School in Northampton during the 1960s. That experience helped spark an interest in science, Venne says, and prompted him to pursue a career in teaching. 

Children are naturally divergent thinkers. As such, Venne said, children sometimes observe things that adults don’t otherwise notice. Over the years, he says, groups of young students have noticed new patterns in rocks that scientists, who hadn’t noticed them before, deduced were made by dinosaurs.

“Sometimes, what they see ends up being new. And that's where discoveries are made,” he said. “Our greatest scientists are excellent divergent thinkers.”

By nurturing outside-the-box thinking in children through engagement with science, he said, “the stronger their scientific minds will be.”

Parents’ enthusiasm

And it’s not only children who benefit, Venne noted. Christy Bonnau of New Hampshire, who brought her homeschooled son, Zaro French, 12, to the Amherst observatory recently, says that she has learned a lot through her son’s interest. 

“I feel like I get to learn again, whether it’s how the continents have shifted, and the way different minerals have formed, to where did the Earth come from?” she said. Learning along with Zaro, says Bonnau, has given her “such a different vantage point to look on the knowledge with.”

When it comes to fostering an interest in astronomy in children, Jonathan Klinkowski, president of the Area Amateur Astronomy Association says a parent’s enthusiasm is infectious. Of the club’s 50 members, most, including himself, were introduced to astronomy by a family member, he says. For him, it was his father, David Klinkowski, on a trip to Frosty Drew Observatory in Rhode Island.

“It was a clear night, and they had this huge scope.”In the scope, I got to see the whole Milky Way, from north to south. That's how I got hooked,” he said.

 For anyone who is thinking about purchasing a telescope, or engaging more in astronomy, he recommends coming to a meeting of the Amherst group and temporarily trying out a telescope available through the group’s loan program.

Looking skyward

Out on the lawn in Westfield, Kaitlynn Goulette described her viewing technique while aligning a telescope’s finderscope first by focusing on a mailbox down the road.

“I always see the first star. It's the sun,” she said.

“We can look at clusters, which are a ton of stars grouped together; we can look at nebulas, clouds in space that stars are being born in; we can look at supernovas, which are stars that exploded,” she said, noting,  “Jupiter should be out tonight.”

Later, in the house, LeeAnna Goulette enthusiastically paged through a photo album of the family’s trips to various space-themed events like the Stellafane Convention in Springfield, Vermont, which is the largest amateur astronomers convention in the region, Northfield Mountain’s annual Astronomer's Conjunction, and Arunah Hill Days in Cummington, a family-oriented weekend of astronomy, star gazing, nature walks, and science education. This year, Arunah Hill Days is scheduled July. 

Studying the night sky has inspired his daughters to delve further into science, Don Goulette notes. Instead of signatures from famous sports players, they collect autographs from astronauts and scientists. A shelf dominating a wall in their home is dedicated to books about constellations, and miniature globes of planets.

For last summer’s eclipse, Joy Goulette said, she and her husband booked a hotel two years in advance, pulled their daughters out of school, and took a road-trip with friends to Clarksville, Tennessee, a good location to see the sun completely covered by the moon,

A group gathered on the hotel lawn to wait for the big moment. “We all had our eclipse glasses, and we had cardboard paper with pinholes, so you could hold them up to the light and see,” she said. “When the eclipse started, there were people there who had attended many eclipses, they told us, 'glasses off,’ and then they'd yell, 'diamond ring,’ which is a different stage of an eclipse.” 

The sun was covered for 2 minutes and 14 seconds. Don Goulette recalled how the temperature dropped 15 to 20 degrees, and the hotel’s outdoor lights suddenly turned on when the world became darker.

“I would say it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, but in 2024 there's another one, and that one might be the last one they see," Joy Goulette said. Beside her, Kaitlynn chimed in, “I think we might be going to Texas!”

“Book your hotels now!” she said.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

For more information on the Amherst Area Amateur Astronomy Association, and to reach out to the organizers, visit www.amherstastronomy.org.

To find out more about the Bassett Planetarium, or to inquire about a visit with a group of 10 or more people, visit www.amherst.edu/museums/bassett. The planetarium is closed during the summers because it’s not air conditioned, and isn’t handicapped accessible.