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“Striking Sparks” gets grade schoolers into science and astronomy

Starstruck kids compete for new telescopes from RFO

The Robert Ferguson Observatory (RFO) has launched the 37th year of its Striking Sparks competition, a program that awards telescopes to Sonoma County students to promote science education and interest in astronomy. The deadline to apply is Feb. 26, 2022.

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 in 2019 was transferred to the Robert Ferguson Observatory. Initially, volunteers hand-built about 200 telescopes, but more recently Orion Dobsonian telescopes have been purchased through funds donated by sponsors. In the program’s 36-year history, 287 telescopes have been awarded, striking a flurry of sparks among Sonoma County students.

“Candidates are usually nominated by their teachers or by RFO members,” says Larry McCune, Striking Sparks coordinator for the 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.”

Last year’s telescope, awarded to Violet Cole, a fourth grader from McKinley Elementary School in Petaluma, was sponsored by the Frank Hejtmanek Family Fund, which 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. The RFO continually seeks individuals or organizations to sponsor telescopes and participate in this worthwhile program. For additional information, visit