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Missing young astronomers: what can we do about it?

LAST AUGUST I attended ALCON, the joint annual meeting of the Astronomical League and the Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers. While the meeting was quite enjoyable, the lack of young attendees was conspicuous.

There were a few notable exceptions. For example, I had a long conversation with a high-school student who is analyzing data from the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia, and who intends to major in physics at George Mason University.

But as noted in our September 2000 cover story, there is ample evidence of a lack of young people who are interested in astronomy, and it's been well documented that fewer Americans are majoring in science and engineering in college. I understand that this situation is not necessarily true in other nations, but it's a worrying trend here. I feel deep concern about the future of amateur astronomy, astronomical research, and innovation. After all, scientists and engineers make discoveries and create technologies that enrich our lives in many ways.

I have a few ideas about what's causing the problem (light pollution, more forms of entertainment, etc.), but I'm neither a sociologist nor an educator, so I'm not brimming with recommendations or solutions. I get the feeling that traditional lectures are becoming less effective in this age of information overload, and teachers and amateur astronomy clubs therefore need to engage students actively, with more hands-on activities, and to relate the subject matter to the real world and pop culture. Older generations need to connect with youth on their terms, since very few students will be able to connect on our terms.

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Several ALCON attendees remarked that the current generation of highschool-age students is a lost cause, and we should give up trying to get them excited about astronomy. But I don't think we can afford to write off an entire generation. I would be interested to hear your thoughts about what amateurs can do to help foster a deeper and sustained interest in astronomy among the youth of America and the world, especially in the crucial 15-to-25 age bracket. Write to editor@SkyandTelescope.com or send a letter to the editor. If we receive enough responses, we'll make it the subject of a future article.

In the meantime, encourage young amateurs to submit an entry by January 31st for the Astronomical League's National Young Astronomer Award. See www.astroleague.org/al/awards/nyaa/noya.html for details.

Robert Naeye

Editor in Chief

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Title Annotation:Spectrum
Author:Naeye, Robert
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Words:407
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