“How does gravity work in a black hole?” “Can we talk about the green comet?” “When is Mars going to be on its closest approach to Earth?” These are just some of the questions that volunteers at Chabot Space & Science Center often get asked during their shifts at the nonprofit education center and observatory in the Oakland Hills.
Chabot recruits new volunteers quarterly to be hosts, exhibit facilitators, event ambassadors, classroom assistants, and telescope operators. There are currently 133 “active” volunteers, according to the center, who commit to at least eight hours of service a month in addition to completing 25 hours of training.
Like the science professions in general, the volunteer program at Chabot historically hasn’t been very diverse: 60% of the volunteers are male, around the same percentage is over 55, and nearly three-quarters are Caucasian. But those numbers have been shifting since the pandemic: Two-thirds of the volunteers who joined last year were women, nearly all were under 55, and more than half were people of color.
Younger volunteers work mostly in the evenings and on weekends, leaving the day shifts to volunteers who are retired from the workforce. In the coming years, the center hopes to see its volunteer program “slowly shift into one that is more reflective of the community it serves,” said a spokesperson for the center.
Chabot opened its doors in 1883 as the Oakland Observatory and was located downtown. In 1915, the center moved to Mountain Boulevard and was renamed Chabot Science Center after its benefactor, Anthony Chabot, a local entrepreneur who founded the Contra Costa Water Company. In 1989, it became a public entity operated jointly by the city of Oakland, Oakland Unified School District, and the East Bay Regional Park District in collaboration with the East Bay Astronomical Society. In 1992, it became a nonprofit, and by August 2000 had a new home on Skyline Boulevard and a new name: Chabot Space & Science Center.
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While Chabot has a steady influx of new volunteers, there’s a core group of about 20 who’ve been there for over 15 years. The Oaklandside recently visited the center and chatted with six of these longtime volunteers who dedicate their free time to teaching visitors about science and the universe.
One of them, Steven Matthews, has been volunteering for over two decades, ever since the center opened at its new location on Skyline.
“I would my bike up here all the time. I was getting ready to retire, and this place was getting ready to be built. I can’t tell you how many times the construction people had kicked me out with my bicycle,” said Matthews. It wasn’t long before the physicist and former Merritt College professor was volunteering. “I’ve loved it since,” he said.
Leonard Tramiel began training as a volunteer months before Chabot reopened in 2000. “I’ve been here weekly since then, except for this thing that happened a couple of years ago,” Tramiel said, referring to the pandemic that forced Chabot to close for over a year and a half. He holds a doctorate in physics and worked for Atari as vice president of software.
Shelly Dommer, the only woman we interviewed and the most recent member of the core group, began volunteering in 2014 because of the connection she formed with the center during childhood. “I remember going to Chabot in 1959 and what an impact it made,” she said. “Then, when my daughter was in school, she would come up here during field trips.”
Children of all ages and walks of life visit Chabot daily, and the volunteers say that there’s never a typical day at the center.
“What I like to do is challenge the children and engage them in conversation. I’ll start with ‘Do you have any questions?’ And if they don’t, I give them some,” Tramiel said. “You get an amazing array of reactions.”
As the volunteers have interacted with kids over the years, they’ve noticed that 5- to 10-year-olds tend to be the most curious. Younger children are often more shy, and those older than 10 don’t always want to ask questions.
Dommer said a “nanny brigade” visits the center once a week, bringing toddlers who learn about science through building exercises at one of Chabot’s hands-on learning studios.
“The toddlers are getting engaged early on in science, and hopefully, when they get to elementary school, they will continue to have that curiosity about it,” Dommer said.
“Children are natural born scientists,” added Gerald McKeegan, who, like the others, has been volunteering for well over two decades. McKeegan also serves as an adjunct astronomer and media representative for the center.
Questions about black holes dominate children’s curiosity, the group said, although they sometimes get youth with broader interests who are more advanced in their science knowledge.
“I once had an 18-year-old who knew more about string theory than I did,” said Richard Smith, who worked at Lockheed Martin aerospace company for 30 years, and has volunteered at Chabot since 2003. “I don’t know that much about it. But I know enough to be able to answer some basic questions, and they were answering my questions.”
While the volunteers get exciting questions, there are times when they have to navigate tricky conversations with visitors who believe in erroneous information like the earth being flat, or with conspiracy theorists like moon-landing deniers.
“You try to give them the facts as best you can. But ultimately, it’s up to them to decide whether to accept them or not,” McKeegan said.
“This is the thing that probably upsets us volunteers the most—to come across someone who’s absolutely convinced that this is the way it is, [and] they’re gonna teach us,” Smith said. “You’ve got to be diplomatic [and] kind of understanding, then you also have to try and correct them.”
Sometimes, they said, the information that needs correcting comes directly from school textbooks.
When McKeegan’s daughter was in school, she once got a science handout that incorrectly explained that the phases of the moon are caused by the earth’s shadow. The correct answer, explained McKeegan, is that the phases of the moon depend only on its position relative to the Earth and the sun.
McKeegan contacted the teacher and ended up going to the classroom with models of the moon, Earth, and sun to explain how the phases work.
“Nowadays, when everybody’s getting all their info off the internet, it’s just too easy for inaccurate information to be presented as factual. To me, that’s a major concern,” McKeegan said.
In the spring of 2000, Tramiel was a volunteer teacher at a middle school in Milpitas. Before a class, he was looking through the astronomy textbook, Exploring The Universe, when he came across a chapter about the phases of the moon. Tramiel found that the images in the textbook were either upside down, a mirror image, or were reversed or rotated. Dismayed by the discovery, he continued browsing and found more than 100 factual errors throughout the textbook.
The ordeal prompted Tramiel to spearhead a decade-long project to convince the California Department of Education that science textbooks should be more accurate. Unfortunately, he lost the battle, and the textbook continues to be used in classrooms today.
“It was just astonishing the things that they got wrong,” Tramiel said.
The spread of science misinformation, the volunteers said, isn’t just happening in school handouts and the internet, but in the media.
A few weeks ago, erroneous information spread about the Comet Nishimura and how it could be seen with the naked eye. McKeegan said reporters contacted him about how unusual it was that the comet was green and wanted more information about this phenomenon.
“All comets are green,” Tramiel said, “but not all comets get picked up by the press.”
In between their time spent combating misinformation, the thing that keeps the volunteers going is helping children learn new science concepts during their time at the center.
“This is what draws me back,” Smith said. “I’m waiting for that next hit.”
“It’s a powerful thing for the kid. It might be more for us,” Tramiel said. “We get more out of it.”
The group hopes to continue inspiring children for years to come.
“I’ve always thought the first foot to step on Mars would have step foot here at Chabot first,” Matthews said.