Southern Cayuga Conversations: The cosmos in the classroom

Carl Sagan loved stars and books. “Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” I wanted our conversations about stars to be both ageless and magical. So I began with books.

As I entered the second-grade classroom at Emily Howland Elementary School, I had a picture book, “A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars” by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg. After reading the book, we wrote the number: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. As soon as we wrote it, the real number had changed. Estimates of stars are tricky business, because we could take all of the telescopes on our planet and not begin to see the universe. We need to read and talk to lots of geniuses in math and science to begin to understand.

After we agreed that we had more research to do, we decided we could still talk about stars. Our favorite star was the sun. Second graders appreciated what the sun does for our planet and all the other planets in our solar system. The discussion of the sun caused some to worry. Stars do explode, and if they get too close to us, we might explode. Someone reminded us that when stars blow up, they make new stars. Generally, we trust our sun. We really can’t get along without it.

 Our discussion moved from the sun to all the stars. They are beautiful and they all have different names, different sizes and different ages. They are like people, and each star is as unique as each person. I told the second grade that they thought like scientists. They agreed and wanted more books and more geniuses. I shared Carl Sagan’s name with them. Their last bit of advice was to always know where to find the North Star and I would never get lost. My parting words were those of Carl Sagan: “We are made of star stuff.”

My next conversation was with a neighbor’s son, who had grown up watching Carl Sagan’s PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which aired in 1980. Books based on the series, as well as countless re-showings and video editions, have allowed him to totally absorb Sagan’s cosmos. I asked Owen to return to second grade and tell me what he thought about stars at an early age. “The sun was a favorite star as a young child. I loved all it gave us. As I got older, I loved that we were made of stardust and that without stars there would be no ‘us.’ I also loved watching my grandparents listen to a favorite song by Nat King Cole, ‘Stardust’ and dance.”

 I was always delighted that any group I spoke with could sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” without missing a word. Surprisingly, it was high school students who first talked about wishing on stars. They debated the strength of wishing on the first star you saw at night versus a shooting star. I am still thinking about a comment, “I have a friend who will never wish on a star again. She is so tired of wishing and then having nothing come true.” She reminded her friend that like wishes, stars can explode, but looking at stars is always worthwhile.

The illustration of a new constellation called Cheetah was created by a precocious 6-year-old who loves cheetahs and could easily envision her constellation. She also loves “Pegasus” and is almost 90-percent sure that a winged horse does exist in the universe. We agreed to keep reading and observing.

Like all good conversations, this one is ongoing. If you would like to eat pizza, meet the best and the brightest of our Southern Cayuga math and science students, read a book with me, talk about our planetarium and see the film “Hidden Figures,” come to Southern Cayuga Central School at 6 p.m. Friday, March 9. “Hidden Figures” is the story of the four brilliant African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn. The event is sponsored by the Anne Frank Tree Committee and is free to the public. Join us and continue the conversation.