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Kids learn about comets and stars at the Homewood Science Center

University of Chicago representatives helped kids and their parents build model rockets, comets and stars and taught them about outer space at the Homewood Science Center on Saturday, Jan. 22. 

Juliet Crowell, a public outreach manager at the University of Chicago, and Louise Gagnon and Yue Pan, U of C students in astronomy and astrophysics, shared their knowledge with the group. As everyone participated, a kid-friendly YouTube playlist about astronomy selected by Crowell was presented in the Michael Wexler Theater space.

The kids were given prepared materials to assemble their comet model, but they had lots of flexibility for the color and length of the ribbon representing the comet’s tail. 

“A comet’s tail can be millions of miles long,” said Gagnon to one of the kids.


“It’s a big ball of ice and dust. So, if you were to go in the street and scoop up a bunch of snow and make a snowball, and have dirt and gravel and stuff in it, that’s kind of like what a comet is,” Gagnon told a parent. “When a comet gets closer to the sun, radiation from the sun melts a little bit of the comet, pushes it and blows it backwards. That’s what creates the tail.”

Gagnon said she was originally a math major, but she switched to astronomy. She said she first became interested in astronomy when she was a kid. She said there was an “outreach center” near where she grew up tin Connecticut that let people look through the telescopes. 

After building their model comets, many of the kids ran around the room, holding the model up like a toy and pretending it was a comet flying through space. 

A map of the constellations and our solar system was laid out on one of the tables. Pan and Gagnon answered questions about asteroids, the eight planets and the satellites surrounding them.

“Each one of these planets (is) unique,” said Pan. “Some of them are gaseous. They’re located more on the outer region of the solar system. Some of them are rock planets and they’re made of rocks mainly. So, they’re in the inner region of the solar system.”

Pan, from Beijing, China, said she became interested in astrophysics after watching the 2014 film “Interstellar” in middle school. The movie tells the story of astronauts who travel through a wormhole near Saturn. 

“[‘Interstellar’] is all about five-dimensional space and black holes and stuff that we don’t really understand. And I think that’s what captivates me into astrophysics,” said Pan. “There’s a need for more people to get involved in this field to figure out what we don’t know about our universe.”

The STEM Saturday program had a casual atmosphere. Throughout the morning, parents and kids arrived to construct the comet, star and rocket models. Dominique Barksdale, science center event coordinator, said that 60 people participated in the event. 

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