Amy Jackson wants you to look up. She hopes your kids will, too. As an astronomer and former classroom science teacher, she values the lessons we can all learn from the night sky. Jackson is the founder of Starry Sky Austin and the author of a new children’s book, Cassandra and the Night Sky. She recently spoke with us about her work.
AF: What led you to the field of astronomy?
Amy: I grew up in Houston, and we’d go to NASA for field trips. My parents let me go to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, in 8th grade. Well, I begged them. Then my senior year in high school, I had a wonderful physics teacher. I just fell in love with physics. I felt drawn to teach, too. I taught high school first, and then I taught middle school science. Well, I got married and had a family and stayed home with my kids while they were really young. I was loving it, but also was bored and sad that I wasn’t feeding that that intellectual side and that passion. So, I created Starry Sky Austin.
AF:What do your students learn? Amy: My main focus is a once-a-week, four-week class. I do this for kids and for UT informal classes for adults. We do boy and girl scout programs. Also, home school classes.
We’re outside at night, and we learn how to use a telescope. I tell star stories. They learn how to use a star chart. I do a laser pointer tour of the sky. These are things I feel like are fundamental toward our human experience of understanding our place on our planet and in our solar system. The immense space between things is one thing I feel like we don’t always experience. Also, the reason for the seasons. You’d be surprised how many people think that we’re closer to the sun in the summer, and that’s why it’s hotter. Students walk away with an understanding of seasons and moon phases. And that the North Star changes. Polaris won’t always be our North Star.
AF: Tell us about your book, Cassandra and the Night Sky.
Amy: It’s a story about a princess growing up in a kingdom with no stars. She finds the night sky and brings it back. It uses some of my favorite summer constellations. My mother’s an artist, and she’s always wanted to illustrate a children’s book. So, we marked a big check box for her. And we found a publisher in Houston: the Bright Sky Press. The book just came out in November.
AF: What was it like working with your mother?
Amy: That’s an aspect of the project that I didn’t even plan for. It brought us so close together. We’re close anyway, but any kind of tension kind of dissipated and became less important because we had this focused project to work on together. It was really fun, because I could be completely honest with her.
AF: What can kids learn from the night sky?
Amy: First of all, the scientific method and learning to think critically. That’s the most important thing you can learn at all. Think critically about what you’re reading and what you’re learning, and the doors are open to learn anything. And so many processes, like the whole stellar evolution and how stars are formed and how if you look up, there’s all these different colored stars. Why are they different colors? Well, they started out with different mass. And just, from one question comes so many. If you just look up, there are so many stories to tell. There are stories about history: the names of the stars and how they were named. And the constellation lines: there’s cultural information there, because each culture has their own constellations. You learn history, science, culture, weather systems and how geology works on our planet. Just by looking at the surface of the moon, you learn about volcanism. How did the craters form? It’s never ending. I feel like I’m always learning, and there’s so much to learn.
AF:What skills are important for astronomy?
Amy: Having resilience and self-confidence and patience really pays off. And just an inspiration and self-motivated interest to learn. I think that’s important with anything. You have to persevere, then you can do anything. You can do hard math. You can learn calculus. You can learn physics. You just have to believe in yourself and keep trying. Take one step, then the next step.
AF:Tell us about your family.
Amy: I have three girls: a 10 year old, an 8 year old and a 2 and ¾ year old. We’re very outdoorsy. We like to mountain bike. We’re trying to get the kids into rock climbing. The past couple of years have been raising a toddler. We’re trying to figure out how to go from a family of four to a family of five [laughs]. We like to hear music. My husband works for Austin City Limits, so I take the kids to the tapings.
AF: Any last thoughts?
Amy: I want you to know about Reimers Observatory. It’s been there for almost 2 years. We limit the program to 30 people per program, so it won’t be these long lines behind telescopes. It’ll be more of an intimate experience.
By Sherida Mock
Editor of Austin Family Magazine and a Mom who has spent many nights star gazing.