For the last six years it has been my pleasure and privilege to donate my science presentations for children to Camp Quest West in southern and northern California. I rotate through three topics; dinosaurs, volcanoes, and (this past July) astronomy. At libraries, schools, scout troops, and gem and mineral conventions, I enjoy performing between 40 and 100 shows per year, but far and above, my favorite audience are the amazing kids at Camp Quest.
This is because of the questions that they ask. At those other venues, smart youngsters and teens will sometimes ask technical questions that show that they have some sophistication in the subject, but at Camp Quest, they consistently ask questions that show that they’re really playing with the ideas that I have been presenting.
Here’s an example:
To illustrate the concept of light taking a long time to traverse the immense distances in space, I give them this scenario:
Imagine a star 2,000 light years away from Earth, and on one of its planets is a very advanced civilization. They’re doing quite well and have plenty of wealth, so they decide to build a telescope as big as their solar system. This is theoretically possible by using an array of many small telescopes arranged in space at extremely, extremely precise distances from each other. It could have the resolution of a single gigantic telescope.
They decide to point their array at a tiny yellow star in a rather sparse part of the galaxy, and increasing the magnification, they notice a little blue planet orbiting that star. Boosting their magnification even more, they zoom in and can see the surface of the Earth as if they were only a few feet above the ground. What would they see?
They would see the tops of the heads of Romans running around on Europe. They would see Caesar, and Roman Senators, and soldiers with lances and swords, and the common people of Rome, all from overhead, because that is the 2,000 year-old light that is just reaching their distant planet. They would be watching the day-to-day life of earthlings who lived two thousand years ago.
During the Q&A portion, a young woman about 14 years of age asked me this question:“If that civilization could move their telescope array through space toward the Earth while they were looking at us, what would they see happening?”
As always happens at Camp Quest, that question was a thrill to me, first because I had never been asked that question, but more importantly because it showed that she was creatively playing with the implications of the idea.
Grinning, my answer was, “According to how fast their array was moving toward Earth, they would see the Romans moving around faster, as if in a movie that has been speeded up, because their array would be moving headlong into that light coming from the Earth. If they came all the way to Earth, they would have seen a speeded-up record of 2,000 years of Earth’s history, culminating on the day they arrived.”
She seemed to both understand my answer, and to be enjoying further possibilities that were coming up in her mind. This is why I love Camp Quest.
I don’t think the kids at Camp Quest are necessarily any smarter than an equal-sized random sample of kids, but I do think they are a pre-selected group in one aspect. They have been encouraged to think carefully, critically, and creatively; to ask many questions, especially “How do we know?”; to not be satisfied with simplistic answers; and, as with the young woman in this example, to play with ideas; to take them apart, reassemble them in new ways, collide them, and always to have fun with them. The credit for that probably should go mostly to their parents.
And the remarkably energetic and highly professional counselors, leader trainees, staff, and volunteers at Camp Quest give a big boost to that eager, creative curiosity.
There are currently 16 Camp Quest locations across the U.S. with more to follow. Please consider donating funds, your talent, or your much-needed helping hands to this very real force for good.
(Images via Camp Quest West)