Astronomer asks kids about the stars


Maya Barlev visits the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the mountains of Chile. (From Maya Barlev)
April 15, 2013

Maya Barlev doesn’t remember when she decided to study the universe, but she said the idea crept up on her when she was a student at Stonegate Elementary in Silver Spring.

“I liked the stars and moon, and I liked math,” Barlev said. “I liked the way you could figure math things out with just a pencil and paper.”

Barlev went on to study astrophysics, the study of space, in college. This month — Global Astronomy Month — the 22-year-old is far from home talking to future astronomers. She’s traveling around the world asking kids ages 6 to 16 what the universe means to them and what they want to know about astronomy, the science of studying the heavens.

“No matter where I’ve been all over the world, there are kids interested in going to the moon and outer space,” she said in a telephone interview from Cape Town, South Africa. “Even if they’re not learning about astronomy in school, kids are fascinated by the universe.”

Barlev’s astronomy project partly was inspired by two experiences she had in school. In high school, she became active in the Universe Awareness Project (www.unawe.org), an international program that helps kids as young as 4 understand the night sky. And while attending Haverford College, Barlev organized star-watching parties for families at the school’s two big telescopes.


Maya Barlev, who travels the world talking about astronomy, presents a telescope to a school in Nepal. (From Maya Barlev)

After she graduated, Barlev won a Watson Fellowship, an award that provides money for her to travel around the world, including stops in Africa, Chile, Nepal, New Zealand and Indonesia.

Barlev visits classrooms, community centers and big telescopes. She says she has fun with the kids — doing face-painting, art projects, working up science puzzle games for older students and showing kids as young as kindergartners how small telescopes work.

“Sometimes I introduce myself as an astronomer, and they’ll say, like, ‘Oh, an astronaut?’ or, ‘I’m a Leo,’ thinking I am an astrologer,” she said. (Astrologers aim to predict the future based on movements of the stars.)

But Barlev says that as soon as the kids understand what astronomy is, they light up “because it’s an inspiring science that kids and adults can engage with . . . something kids anywhere in the world can become part of,” she said.

The American Astronomical Association estimates that there are about 20,000 people around the globe who work as astronomers and 500,000 more who study astronomy as a serious hobby.

Barlev’s travels will end in August, and she said she’s not certain what’s next. She may use the diary on her blog (littlemayabigworld.blogspot.com) to write a book about children and astronomy, or maybe she will attend graduate school to become a teacher.

It’s important that schools help kids dream big, Barlev said. The good news is that nations everywhere are taking astronomy seriously, she said, noting South Africa’s effort to boost astronomy in education.

“Astronomy is an inspiring science,” she said. “It inspires all of us to think about the scale of the universe, how powerful the heavens are, who we are and who we might become.”

— Raymond M. Lane

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