The Organization Creating Starry-Eyed Future Scientists

Universe Awareness introduces kids ages four to 10 to the wonder of the cosmos.

Photo via Universe Awareness

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, teaching kids about science may not be so hard. That’s the thinking behind Universe Awareness, an organization that develops training and classroom resources that use stars, the solar system, and other astronomical marvels to get youth excited about science.

A decade ago, George Miley, an astronomy professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, dreamed up the concept for Universe Awareness when he realized that every time he spoke about his day job at his children’s school, the young audiences would light up with questions and curiosity.

To Miley, it’s crucial to get kids involved in the sciences as they develop their values and interests, and he devoted funds from his own professorship to kicking off Universe Awareness. Now the organization has a presence in more than 50 countries, with a focus on underserved kids ages four to 10. (The European Union also provided nearly 2 million euros for programming in five European countries and South Africa.)

“If kids are excited about something, you could teach them anything,” Miley says. “But you have to get them motivated first. If they’re excited about astronomy, you can use stories about the moon, planets, and stars to teach them language, reading, and also arithmetic.”

In addition to its academic objectives, the program also aims to use global perspective to teach children tolerance and citizenship. The Universe Awareness website states: “Considering the vastness and beauty of the universe and our place within it provides a special perspective that can help broaden the mind and stimulate a sense of global citizenship and tolerance.”

Universe Awareness divides its work into three categories: training teachers, developing educational resources, and creating an international network of educators. “If you get to the teachers, you can reach many more children,” Miley says of the first goal, noting that it’s a much more efficient model than dispatching central Universe Awareness teams to travel across the globe.

As for learning tools, aspiring Astronomy magazine writers will dig Space Scoop, a part of the Universe Awareness website that offers news stories in dozens of different languages.

The program’s international office at Leiden University also distributes a “universe in a box”—with funding from a successful summer Kickstarter campaign—containing a small globe, models, and other tools to promote out-of-this-world discovery. The organization also hands out inflatable Earth balls that come with classroom activities encouraging students to draw the planet and learn about unfamiliar geographic features. “If you talk about very young children, it doesn’t have to be a very expensive, complicated toy to make them interested,” Miley says.

With public money funding these projects, Miley endeavors to make the resources open to all. Want to build your own “universe in a box?” Universe Awareness tells you how. Already have an Earth ball, and just need the activities? You’re in luck.

Keeping this “bottom-up” organization running is an international network of educators. Miley believes that teachers in individual countries have a better understanding of local cultural values that help them incorporate resources into classrooms and answer sensitive science questions. “Universe Awareness in Ghana is run by Ghanese, and they decide what to do,” Miley says.

The professor would like to see Universe Awareness in every country someday. Depending on how much funding the program receives, he says the organization wants to expand to 100 countries. In the meantime, he’s grateful for those who have already devoted time to using the universe to inspire children.

“As a research astronomer, it’s been a privilege to become involved with this sort of thing. You really become acquainted with a set of very special people,” Miley says.