After hours of lecture and planning, the fifth grade class at Coronado K - 8 School is ready to look at the night sky like never before.
It’s a Thursday morning at the school, and students are making their way into the classroom, where they’re greeted by a mountain of boxes assembled in front of the whiteboard. Just as things settle down, the classroom door swings open and an older gentlemen wearing a Santa hat and jingling bells walks in.
The kids are lucky. His hat isn’t just for show; he comes bearing gifts.
It’s all part of the Sun City Oro Valley Astronomy Club’s school outreach program, through which every fifth grader at Coronado K - 8 receives a free telescope. The process begins a few days prior, when members of the astronomy club work with the school teachers to inform the students about astronomy and telescopes, all leading to the club donating 70 telescopes for the kids.
“This is the big day,” said SCOV Astronomy Club member Bob Weirather. “They can’t control themselves, and I understand why.”
Club member Nelson Tilden is tasked with walking the fifth grade students through unpacking and assembling their new telescopes. He introduces the students to viewfinders, millimeters and how to center in on celestial bodies.
“Tonight would be a very good night to go home and look at the moon,” Tilden told the class. “But remember, the higher the number is, the lower the magnification.”
Tilden also offers some less scientific, but still very important, tips.
“Remember, your telescope is only as good as you keep it clean,” he said.
Instructing the elementary school students on how to assemble and operate the delicate gears, knobs and mirrors of their new telescopes can be tricky, but the astronomy club is plenty experienced. Last month’s donation was the tenth year in a row the group provided science equipment.
But that’s not all. The day even featured a special guest: Don McCarthy, professor of astronomy at University of Arizona. McCarthy wore a special light-up constellation shirt, both for the holidays and for the science lesson.
“This is the best day of my life; I’ve never had my own telescope!” One fifth grader said.
The telescope program began in 2009 when the SCOV Astronomy Club joined the Tucson-based National Optical Astronomy Observatory in a new effort called “Project Astro.” The new program was developed to encourage amateur astronomers to work with fifth- and seventh-grade science teachers in local schools.
“In that first year the project at Coronado became unique when the Sun City team decided to raise money for astronomy by encouraging its club members to make donations through the Arizona tax credit opportunity,” SCOV Astronomy Club member Harland Goertz said. “As a result, they were able to give every fifth grade student attending Coronado their own telescope.”
Since beginning in 2009, SCOV Astronomy Club’s annual tradition has given over 800 telescopes to students at Coronado.
With the program turning 10 in 2018, the first fifth graders the SCOV Astronomy Club gave telescopes to in the early years are now grown up. Goertz knows of at least one Coronado student with whom the club worked who later attended college to study astronomy.
While this most recent donation day is Goertz’s last, other members of the SCOV Astronomy Club plan to continue the tradition after his retirement.
“I was the first to join for Project Astro, but not the last,” Goertz said.
The only question is, with Goertz gone next year, which club member will wear the Santa hat next?
“We hope you’ll use your telescopes, please go out and use them often,” Tilden said as the club members left the classroom. “You’ll be amazed at what you find.”