family science night

A scene from last year’s Family Science Night at Basalt Middle School

For many kids in the Roaring Fork Valley, last Monday was a pretty cool day at school science-wise, as they got to watch a live TV broadcast of a NASA lander touching down on Mars. The landing — described by NASA engineers as “seven minutes of terror” — was a success, and the lander, dubbed InSight, is already sending back selfies. It’s the eighth mission to make it to Mars overall but the first in six years, and it no doubt fueled the space-exploring curiosity of young people around the country.

As luck would have it, kids here in the valley have a chance to follow up on that curiosity tonight at the well-timed sixth annual Family Science Night at Basalt Middle School. A collaboration between the school’s maker space and the Aspen Science Center, the popular event’s theme this year is space, and with exhibits, interactive demos and more, it aims to send kids’ imaginations blasting off into the cosmos.

“We have a lot of hands-on things that kids can come in and explore and play with and see how the science works and how scientists are using it,” said Allison Johnson, who runs the BMS maker space, which supplies tools and material for kids to drop in and create things outside of a classroom structure. “There’s going to be an astronomy station with telescopes. Kids can come in and make nighttime rockets that we’re going to launch outside. We’ve got stuff like a gravitational-warping-of-space-time simulation and spectral glasses that separate light into colors.”   

Johnson, who also handles communications for the middle school, helped start the Family Science Nights six years ago with inspiration from her son, a science fan. Together, they spearheaded fundraising efforts and were able to hire the Grand Junction-based John McConnell Math and Science Center to come to Basalt and supply exhibits and demonstrations for the inaugural event. That arrangement worked out fine for the first four years, but last year Johnson chose to keep things closer to home.

“We decided to try to use a local organization, so we reached out to the Aspen Science Center,” she said. “They’ve been fabulous. They’re bringing in the majority of the exhibits.”

In addition to the rockets, telescopes and time-space warping, exhibits will include an astronaut ice cream, a planetary crater demo, a liquified sand table and more. The middle school kids themselves made a model of the solar system in the school’s cafeteria that’s built to scale, if not to corresponding distance (“If the sun were a half-inch in diameter, Pluto would be 177 feet away,” noted Johnson). They also built a capsule based on the Soyuz rockets that uses a weighted vest to simulate the G-forces an astronaut feels.

Should all the demos and sims not be enough, the National Geographic documentary “Science Fair” will be playing in the auditorium throughout the event. The movie is free, and Johnson conceded that bigger folks who accompany their little ones might want to avail themselves of it.

“Parents come, and they get really interested in exploring the experiments along with the kids, but sometimes they’ll have a kid who gets stuck just wanting to do one thing for two hours and play with it,” she said. “So if they want to come check out an award-winning documentary, they can.”

The event is targeted at kids in middle school and just a little younger, as much of the science is a little complicated, but all kids and their parents are welcome to attend.

“If you’ve got a kid who’s interested in space and wants to come, we’re not going to say no,” said Johnson.

Admission to Family Science Night, which runs tonight from 6-8:30 p.m., is $10, and Johnson encouraged anyone interested to go to the BMS website (search for Basalt Middle School) and register ahead of time. It’ll be a great opportunity for curious kids to explore space and science, and their parents just might learn a thing or two, as well.

“It surprises a lot of parents when they see how hands-on and involved their kids get,” said Johnson. “We’ve had parents all of a sudden realize, ‘Wow, my kid really likes science. Maybe I should buy some science kits.’ It’s given parents ideas for Christmas presents and ways to engage with their kids.”

Todd Hartley is the special sections editor for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at

Special Sections Editor