White House Aims Middle Schoolers Eyes To Stars

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Call it a star party with real star power. The White House set up 20 telescopes, an inflatable dome with a three-dimensional video tour of the universe, and displays of moon rocks and meteorites as President Barack Obama was hosting a South Lawn star party for about 150 middle schoolers Wednesday evening.

It was a nearly cloudless night ideally suited for looking into the cosmos _ if only the city lights weren't around to obscure the best views.

And if the moon, Jupiter, stars and the entire universe weren't enough, the party also was to include the president, his family, two pioneering astronauts and science teachers dressed up as Isaac Newton and Galileo.

The White House star party _ which may be a first for the president's home, according to U.S. Naval Observatory spokesman Geoff Chester _ is part of a worldwide emphasis on astronomy. This year marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first observations of Jupiter and its moons with a telescope, and has been designated the International Year of Astronomy. People around the world are being encouraged to look at Jupiter and the moon this month. And NASA is purposely crashing a probe into the moon, shown live on the Internet Friday morning.

So Dean Howarth and Dan Carroll, suburban Virginia high school science teachers, had a brass replica of Galileo's telescope and a fancier Newton telescope replica for the White House party. And if that wasn't enough, they also were planning to change into costumes to dress as the two science legends.

"We're either really cool or really crazy," said Howarth, before changing into Newton.

As he stroked the Newton telescope replica, Howarth described the technology behind it and added: "This is the same thing that is on the Hubble."

The idea is to emphasize science, math and technology education, said Sally Ride, the first female U.S. astronaut, who stood with first black female astronaut Mae Jemison. That's why the 150 middle schoolers will be there _ the most Obama has had at the White House, said White House science adviser John Holdren.

"Upper elementary and middle school is where most students happen to lose interest in science," Ride said. She saw her female friends lose interest in science at that age though, she said, "I never did."

The heavy emphasis on the skies is about "inspiring these kids to go on to become scientists," Holdren said.

The White House may want kids to look to the stars, but it won't talk about sending them there. The George W. Bush plan to return astronauts to the moon is being reviewed by the White House and is likely to change, but Holdren wouldn't talk about what the president hopes to do about space beyond inspiring children.

Daniel Laurey, a student at nearby Herndon High School in Virginia, didn't need inspiration. He was there with his telescope, which was aimed at Jupiter. He could tick off the four visible moons of Jupiter: "Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa."

And he instantly knew how many moons Jupiter had: 63.

So with the telescopes, astronomers, and costumes, was there an element of geekiness on the White House lawn?

"Does the geekiness need to be questioned?" answered Howarth, who hadn't quite donned his Newton costume yet. "The nice thing is that people are paying attention to geeks."

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On the Net:

The effort to get people to look at Jupiter and the moon: http://www.galileannights.org/

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