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X-STEM – Extreme STEM Symposium

Dr. JeffreyBennett

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The Wonders of Space Exploration: 'Showing Kids That There Are Great Things to Dream About'

Even as an elementary school student, Jeffrey Bennett –-noted astronomer, educator and author – had a burning curiosity about space and the universe... but also a sense of urgency in learning as much as he could about these frontiers in short order.

"I grew up during the Apollo era of NASA," says Jeffrey, "and as a kid I can remember being disappointed and impatient with the pace of space exploration. My Grandfather took me to see the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, and on the way out he asked me if I thought the movie was realistic. I said 'No. It's 2001 and they haven't even finished their rotating space station!' I was thinking that we would do much more by 2001."

Looking back on that day now with a smile, Jeffrey is currently using the same sense of purpose --combined with his love and training in astronomy, physics, mathematics and education -- to inspire young students and others in the excitement of science, space and the universe through his books, outreach presentations and other major projects.

Adding to his impressive background, he has also taught extensively at all levels of education, including college, and founded and ran a private science summer school for elementary and middle school children while conducting in-service workshops for teachers. His best-selling textbooks on astronomy, mathematics, astrobiology and statistics are staple reading at colleges and universities, and his science books for children and the general public are also popular.
Perhaps his most visible achievements have been his work in developing highly-acclaimed educational scale models of the solar system. He proposed the idea for, and helped develop, both the Colorado Scale Model Solar System (on the University of Colorado campus) and the Voyage Scale Model Solar System which opened in 2001 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Educating students and the public about the planet and solar system, says Jeffrey, not only enhances their knowledge of science, but also helps in better understanding our place and meaning in the universe, and how fragile our planet is.

"We need to know and understand that we're not the center of the universe," he says. "I wrote something at one point about COTUS, which stands for Center of the World Syndrome, which is what I think many people suffer from. There are lots of ways to get over it, but mostly it's doing things like learning about the scale of the universe, looking at pictures we get from the Hubble telescope and seeing that the moon and Mars are places you can walk on. When viewed this way, you come to realize how truly tiny and fragile the Earth is, and how important our responsibilities are to preserving the planet."

Moreover, the study of space and space exploration "shows kids that there are great things they can dream about," he contends.

Astronomy has a way of helping to spawn such possibilities, which is what excites Jeffrey about his work, including his role in establishing the noted Colorado Scale Model Solar System, and the Voyage Scale Model Solar System in Washington, DC.

The Colorado Scale Model, which grew out of Jeffrey's experience teaching at the elementary school and college levels, is dedicated to the memory of Challenger astronaut and University of Colorado alumnus Ellison Onizuka and the six other Challenger astronauts. The model shows both planetary sizes and distances in our solar system at 1 ten-billionth actual size, making it one of only a handful of walkable scale model solar systems in the world that use such a true scale.

This exhibit provided the impetus for Jeffrey to work with the Smithsonian Institution, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, and NASA to create the Voyage exhibit, a dramatic scale model solar system with color images and planets embedded in glass. "It uses the same scale of 1 to 10 billion to give visitors a real sense of the vastness of our solar system and the triumphs of space exploration," says Jeffrey.

Jeffrey holds a B.A. degree in Biophysics from the University of California at San Diego and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

As an author, he has written two books for general public — On the Cosmic Horizon (Addison Wesley, 2001) and Beyond UFOs (Princeton University Press, 2008/2011); the latter was selected in 2008 by Miami University as their Convocation book for all incoming students to read.

Jeffrey is also the creator and author of the children's series "Science Adventures with Max the Dog," which includes Max Goes to the Moon, Max Goes to Mars, and Max Goes to Jupiter, and author of the forthcoming The Wizard Who Saved the World (Nov. 2011). Through his "Max Goes to Schools" donation program, he has donated copies of one or more of his children's books to more than 10,000 elementary schools across the nation. Max Goes to the Moon recently became the first children's book read aloud in full from space, by astronaut Alvin Drew on the final mission
of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and a planetarium show based on the book will open in late 2011.

Among his other major endeavors, he served two years as a Visiting Senior Scientist at NASA Headquarters, where his achievements included creating the Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy (originally IDEA, now called IDEAS), and helping start the program known as Flight Opportunities for Science Teacher EnRichment (FOSTER), which flew teachers on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory and will soon be taking teachers on the SOFIA airborne observatory.

Among his current projects, he is one of the founders of Big Kid Science, a new company dedicated to educating and inspiring children with the wonders of science.

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