CCC student helps Navajo Nation children reach for the stars


CCC student Kiril Kirkov (left) and astronomy instructor Barry Malpas prepare a telescope for photography as part of the "Stars for the Future" project designed to expose Navajo Nation students to space sciences.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Fourteen young students from the STAR School in Leupp ate pizza and listened as Coconino Community College Astronomy Instructor Barry Malpas explained photographs of the moon and the planets on the wall of the classroom.

“You can expect to take pictures like these,” he told the students.

The students will be on the CCC campus every other week for the academic year as part of the “Stars for the Future” program. The program, created by CCC2NAU student Kiril Kirkov, exposes the children to astronomy concepts.

The ultimate goal: “Some day, some of these children will go into space science,” Kirkov said.


Kirkov took a Planetary Science class with Instructor Kevin Mullins last spring. During the class, Mullins told Kirkov of NASA Space Grants available through NAU when he started taking classes there. The grants help students develop skills in research of space sciences.

“The projects can be anything that is connected to NASA and space science in general,” Kirkov said.

Kirkov didn’t know at the time that the class would end up with giving him the idea for “STARs for the Future.” It took him about 10 minutes to envision the whole project, and he began enlisting the help of Flagstaff and Navajo Nation scientists and educators.

The idea: Teach students from the STAR School in Leupp how to do astronomy observations using telescopes at CCC, which have tracking software to follow celestial objects.

“The idea is to work with children from indigenous communities in our area,” Kirkov said.

The participants will be the school’s fifth- and eighth-grade students. The program will introduce space science to the children and give a comparative look between modern and traditional understanding of the universe. The program will follow tribal cultural protocols and understanding of the skies.


Kirkov’s passion is visual anthropology. The discipline, as he sees it, combines his loves of filmmaking, photography and indigenous cultures. He moved to the United States from Bulgaria in 2008 after he spent a career as a high school teacher who also delved deeply into Bulgarian folklore.

“It was more or less cultural anthropology,” Kirkov said.

When he moved to the U.S., his focus was to study photography to practice another form of art, and when he started school at CCC, his focus widened to include filmmaking and cultural anthropology.

“It was a natural transition for me,” Kirkov said.

As a member of the CCC2NAU program, Kirkov, who is now a U.S. citizen, will transition to NAU to complete his bachelor’s degree before he moves onto get a master’s degree and ultimately a Ph.D.

Kirkov will be using his own camera equipment for the project, which will last the academic year. Twice a month on Thursdays, the students will come to CCC from Leupp to make astronomical observations and undergo photography workshops and lectures. On Fridays, Kirkov will travel to Leupp for post-production of the photos. The school has an established media program, so the students participating in the program have the necessary media literacy.

Kirkov selected some of the students as a media team to make a documentary of the students’ experiences during the project.

“The point is for the children to document the experience themselves,” Kirkov said.

In April, the NAU School of Communication will donate time for the students to edit the project with Kirkov’s supervision and come up with an hour-long documentary.

All of the photos and the documentary will then be used to create a student exhibit of the project. Kirkov said Lowell Observatory has expressed interest in displaying the students’ work. At the end of the project, he will invite the students, their families and people from all the participating institutions for the opening reception for the exhibit.

“The kids will be very happy and proud,” Kirkov said. “The parents will be proud, too.”


Kirkov presented the program to the Leupp community during the Harvest Festival in September. He and some of the scientists who volunteered their time to the project brought four telescopes from CCC. About 200 students, parents, faculty and staff showed up at the school. Kirkov and some of the other volunteers of the project gave a presentation on the celestial bodies the students will be observing during the academic year.

After the presentation, the people gathered went to the telescopes and were able to get a closer look at the Milky Way, Saturn and some of the constellations.

“It was an outstanding beginning,” Kirkov said. “I was very excited. It was great.”

Kirkov said that depending on how well the project goes will determine if it will be extended into the future and perhaps expanded to include students from the Hopi Reservation.

He added that he’s planning to build his master’s thesis based on the project.

“It just sounds too good not to be a master’s thesis,” Kirkov said, smiling. “It’s my way of saying ‘Thank you.’”


Monday, 21st September 2015

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  • Monday, 21st September 2015