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Petaluma fourth grader earns Striking Spark award

Robert Ferguson Observatory (RFO) has awarded a recipient of this year’s Striking Sparks competition, a program that awards telescopes to Sonoma County students to promote science education and interest in astronomy. The 2021 winner is Violet Cole, a fourth grader from McKinley Elementary School in Petaluma.

“Since I have met Violet, she has shown a keen interest in science – specifically astronomy,” says Ashley Acquistapace-Miller, Violet’s 4th grade teacher at McKinley Elementary School who helped nominate her student. “When given the opportunity to choose a topic for her Genius Hour Research Project in class, she immediately chose to study the planet Pluto. Violet dove into this topic…Rather than just search for basic facts about Pluto, she investigated topics such as why Pluto is no longer considered a planet, whether or not life could exist on Pluto, and about Tombauch Regio – the heart shape on its surface.”

Robert Ferguson, the observatory’s namesake, founded the Striking Sparks program in 1985 when he built a telescope with a student to “strike a spark” of interest in science and astronomy. That first “spark” of interest contributed to the student ultimately graduating with a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. The program continued through the Sonoma County Astronomical Society, and later was transferred to the Robert Ferguson Observatory in 2019. Initially volunteers hand built about 200 telescopes, but more recently Orion Dobsonian telescopes are purchased through funds donated by sponsors. In the program’s 36-year history, 287 telescopes have been awarded, striking a flurry of sparks in Sonoma County students.

“Candidates are nominated by their teachers or by RFO members,” says Larry McCune, Striking Sparks Coordinator for RFO. “Eligible applicants must be Sonoma County students in first through eighth grade. We also require attendance at one or more events at RFO before the contest entry. Lastly, the candidate must write an essay about his or her interest in astronomy.”

“Having one of your telescopes would help me learn about my favorite things in the heavens,” wrote Violet as part of her essay. “I love learning about the cosmos!” She goes on to list some of the objects she would like to see one day, including her personal favorite dwarf planet Pluto, but also The Galactic Center (the center of the Milky Way), PSR B1509-58 (a 1,700 year old pulsar and its nebula), the Eagle Nebula, NGC 281 (a nebula with stars forming now in the Milky Way), and many more.

This year’s telescope was sponsored by the Frank Hejtmanek Family Fund that has provided an annual award for 20 years. Frank’s son Mark Hejtmanek of Littleton, Colo. administers the fund. An engraved sponsor’s plaque is attached to each telescope. Orion Telescopes and Binoculars of Watsonville, Calif. also supports the program.

Many of the previous Striking Sparks winners have attained professional careers in astronomy, science, and engineering, or just have a greater appreciation of the night sky. RFO continually seeks individuals or organizations to sponsor telescopes and participate in this worthwhile program. For additional information, visit

About Robert Ferguson Observatory (RFO) –

Robert Ferguson Observatory is run by the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association, a 501(3)(c) non-profit, and has offered outreach-based astronomy and science programs to the public for almost 25 years. RFO is almost all-volunteer run and typically serves about 9,000 visitors annually. The observatory is located in Sugarloaf State Park and houses a 40-inch reflector telescope, the largest telescope in Northern California that is accessible to the public; a robotic 20-inch research-grade, “CCD” telescope; and an 8”, two-meter long refractor telescope. Like us on Facebook @RobertFergusonObservatory.

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