The Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project introduces kids to the fascinating field of Solar Astronomy while encouraging them to use their brains to achieve amazing things. We talked with the project’s founder Stephen Ramsden about the history of the project as well as his visions of the project’s future. Learn about how the project began, what continues to motivate Stephen, and how Solar Astronomy can be used to inspire greatness in future generations while instilling reverence for our planet.
What, specifically, inspired you to begin this project?
I was raised by a mother that encouraged science and reason. I was given several great opportunities by various people in my youth to learn and use science and math, which pointed me towards a lifetime of achievement through brainpower. When my friend and fellow veteran Charlie Bates committed suicide in 2008, I took a long look at why I was still here and he wasn’t. It all boiled down to people helping me to achieve at an early age and instilling self-confidence through using what I had learned in science.
I decided that the best thing I could do to pay homage to Charlie and to help the next generation would be to go out and help as many young people as possible to learn about the science of the natural world. At the time, no one was doing high-end Solar Astronomy and it seemed a perfect fit for something I could do en masse at schools, as it is a daytime pursuit. The Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project was born and has since expanded into 27 countries worldwide and seen over 750,000 students.
Any favorite memories you’d like to share?
Early on I had a young middle schooler ask me, “How much water would it take to ‘put out’ the Sun?” I loved her originality and it showed me a great understanding of what I was trying to teach.
How did your collaboration with Rainbow Symphony happen?
Mark and Sophie Margolis were my original vendor for Solar Eclipse glasses. I went a couple of years purchasing large amounts of their products, and when the program achieved global recognition, they decided that it was something that they wanted to support. They offered to sponsor our program and have since been the largest supplier of in-kind donations to our nonprofit. I could never have achieved the success we now enjoy without the help and generosity of Rainbow Symphony. We use their solar eclipse glasses and diffraction gratings in our program and have given away almost half a million units.
What is it about Solar Astronomy that continues to generate such intense interest?
The Sun is, surprisingly, still a mystery to most people. Everyone was raised to never look at the Sun, which in turn has made it something of a taboo to learn about in school. Every single time someone really looks into the telescopes at the Sun’s chromosphere, they are absolutely amazed at what they see. It’s like watching someone seeing Saturn’s rings for the first time, 500 or so times a day. It’s just…awesome.
What keeps you motivated?
Strangely, the constant reports of young people getting in trouble or losing their lives in ridiculously stupid, and wholly preventable, situations on the street keeps me motivated. I always think if I could have just gotten to that person when they were in middle school, things would be different.
What has been your favorite part of running Sunlit Earth?
Sunlit Earth is the expansion of CBSAP into how sunlight affects living terrestrial systems. It has allowed me to combine my passion for nature photography and my love of solar astronomy into a great STEM program that teaches people to be good stewards of the Earth, as well as to understand how our Sun is responsible for all life, as we know it.
What’s the greatest challenge in running an educational program of this nature?
Unfortunately, the greatest challenge of running any nonprofit is to get the general public to support it financially. Science has taken a back seat in our country to political extremism and finding new ways to isolate ourselves from “those people.” Rainbow Symphony is truly an incredible group of people as they have always stepped up to support this program. Mark and Sophie think in long term instead of short term gain. We are very proud to be associated with them.
What was your biggest goal in mounting this new program?
My goal has always been to have some kid, even just one, achieve greatness and think back to say, “Wow, that guy was really cool and his lecture opened my eyes to what I could become by using my brain to pursue science.”
How did you get CBSAP to go global? Do you plan to expand the same global reach with Sunlit Earth?
Sunlit Earth is already active in 4 countries. I used Facebook and Instagram to expand globally in the early days. Whenever I saw someone using rudimentary equipment in a 3rd world country to try and better their community, I made it a point to contact them privately and arrange for an equipment donation and a visit to help them be the best they could be. We have everything at our disposal in this country. It simply isn’t fair that we have so much and others who happen to have been born in a disadvantaged environment have so little.
My wife and I decided that we had more than enough stuff, so we make it a habit of giving away everything we can to provide opportunity where none existed before.
How many students and Solar Astronomy lovers has CBSAP and Sunlit Earth reached?
To date, I have personally administered the program to over 350,000 students while our affiliates and social media have reached untold millions. We tally all actual outreach events and have a global total of just over 750,000.
What is one thing you'd like people to understand about why Sunlit Earth is so important and how can they bring this to their town?
Well, we are clearly destroying our natural habitats at an alarming rate. People in developed countries have become addicted to screen time, which has almost completely removed the old school connection to the environment around them. You can see it in the garbage thrown everywhere in our cities and suburbs.
Sunlit Earth! teaches people about how sunlight is used by plants and animals to survive. It coincidentally reestablishes the connection to nature that our young people have forgotten. I have found that spending just a few hours outside in the woods or at a local nature preserve, without any screens in front of you, can produce a tangible and significant change for the better in how urban folks connect to their environment. I believe it will help teach people to appreciate nature more while educating them in Solar physics and the study of light.