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Starry, Starry Night

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About four times a year, late at night, you’ll find a group of 4-H’ers gathering at the Mountain Lake Conservancy in Giles County, looking at the sky. The group, organized by 4-H Extension agent Charles Lytton, is participating in the Giles County 4-H Astronomy program.

For the past 10 years, Lytton has helped 4-H’ers and their families learn more about the science of astronomy, and in broader terms, more about scientific concepts in general. “I’ve pulled together a booklet of information on the history of astronomy, star charts, and a dictionary to get folks started,” says Lytton. The families work on the booklet –which also incorporates practice with math and reading skills – at home, then gather at Mountain Lake to study the sky.

“When looking at the sky, I’ll ask them to describe what they see, and then predict – based on what we’ve learned about astronomy – what they will see 90 days later,” Lytton says. “We’ll learn about the phases of the moon, identify its geographical features, and even find the spot where the Apollo mission landed. This covers some concepts in the Virginia Standards of Learning, and also gives them practice with scientific reasoning.”

Lytton doesn’t miss any opportunity to teach observation and data-collection skills throughout the evening. At cold winter meetings, the group will build a fire to warm up, then Lytton asks the youth to evaluate the different types of firewood they used. They determine how much heat each type of wood produces and how much ash it creates, and they analyze the data they’ve collected.

Events include the entire family, because one of Lytton’s underlying goals for the program is to give families an opportunity for a night out together. In 2008, more than 65 families from across the New River Valley participated. “I like seeing families come out and do things together,” Lytton says.