Howard County's volunteer of the year brings night sky to life

When Joel Goodman heard the sounds created by the earth's magnetic field — the first recording made in the 50 years since scientists uncovered an audible component — he knew what he had to do.

The Glenelg dentist set about assembling a 30-minute presentation in his spare time on what is known as the electromagnetic dawn chorus, which he said sounds remarkably like birds chirping, for the Nature Sphere Planetarium at the year-old Robinson Nature Center, on Cedar Lane.

In fact, Goodman has assembled 45 presentations on various astronomy topics for the $18 million, county-owned center since it opened in Columbia in September 2011, donating 275 hours in the process.

For that accomplishment and others, earlier this month he was named Howard County Volunteer of the Year.

"I was surprised and humbled to win," said Goodman, 59, who first embarked on his mission of bringing the wonders of the cosmos to children in 1997. That year he gave a talk on observing the unusually bright Hale-Bopp Comet, which then spurred him to start a kids' astronomy club called Celestial Searchers.

"To be recognized for doing something I love to do is remarkable," said the Clarksville resident, who says that all he did was respond to the parents who clamored for more after his initial presentation.

Goodman's role, as he sees it, is to bring the night sky to life.

In our increasingly urbanized and well-lit civilization, the only time many kids see a lot of stars in the night sky is in a planetarium, he says. This is due to light pollution, a topic explored in "The City Dark," a documentary that Goodman recommends viewing.

"People ask, 'Is it really that important to observe the night sky?' It's a connection to something bigger than us. When kids look through a telescope and understand they're looking at another world, it's very centering," he said.

"I tell them, 'You're a tiny speck in the universe; you're an important speck, but you're tiny in the grand scheme of things.' "

'Rock star volunteer'

Meagan Leatherbury, program director at the nature center, nominated Goodman for the honor, which the county has bestowed annually for more than 20 years. A four-person committee selected him and three other winners from a field of 16 individuals, county spokeswoman Alexandra Besani said, and a ceremony was held Oct. 3.

"Without Joel, there is no way our planetarium would have the quantity and quality of programming we now offer," Leatherbury said. "It's incredible to think that he was able to take it and run with it despite having a full-time job."

John Byrd, director of the county's Recreation and Parks Department, which operates the nature center, called Goodman's contributions to the success of the facility "a giant magnet."

"Everyone who works with him or goes to one of his programs is hooked," Byrd said in a statement. "He's a rock star volunteer for the department."

Goodman downplays his personal role, mentioning the encouragement he received from the late Gary Arthur, the longtime recreation and parks chief who had overseen the center's development and groundbreaking ceremony.

The Baltimore native prefers instead to focus on the overarching vision for astronomy education that he shares with the Howard Astronomical League, which was founded in 1999. The 100-family organization is known for its monthly Star Parties, its advocacy of model lighting ordinances, and its work to bring a publicly accessible observatory to Alpha Ridge Park in Marriottsville, a project that is "very close to breaking ground" after two years, he said.

The 18-by-30-foot structure will feature a 15-foot circular platform with a wheelchair lift, thanks in part to a $25,000 state grant awarded to HAL, which members matched. They also raised another $30,000 in in-kind donations, he said.

The historic Watson telescope, an antique that's highly praised for its accuracy, will make its home there.

Sharing his passion

Goodman recently sold the dental practice he opened in 1983, though he will continue to work in the office, he said. This move will free him to concentrate on his astronomy pursuits, as well as to spend more time with his second wife, Sally Lentz, and his stepson, Jacob Cowan, 23. Another stepson, Max Cowan, whom Goodman described as a catalyst for his achievements, died in April 2008 at age 16.

As a member of the Sunrise Rotary Club of Ellicott City and the Glenwood Lions Club, Goodman stresses that volunteerism is important because "all we have as individuals is our time, and if you have a passion you should share it."

Noel Richman, a county gifted-and-talented education specialist, credits Goodman with instilling a curiosity about the universe in her three kids, ages 5 to 9. They attend Bushy Park Elementary School in western Howard, where wide expanses of undeveloped land lend themselves to star gazing by members of Celestial Searchers, which is open to all county students in kindergarten through grade grade 8.

"Without Joel, none of this [programming] would exist," she said. "He really brings it to life and makes it relevant. He brings down the concepts of the massiveness of nature to a younger level, yet he also teaches a class at Howard Community College."

Goodman said he ends all of his presentations with a signature sign off: "And remember, keep looking up."

"Astronomy was my juice when I was a kid," he said. "If I can make a difference in the life of a child by stimulating a curiosity about the world around us, that's all I hope to accomplish."

Others honored

Also receiving individual awards at the Oct. 3 ceremony were: Athena Kan, a River Hill High School sophomore who was named Youth Volunteer of the Year for founding CHOICE, a child obesity prevention group; Mae Beale, a 30-year community volunteer who received a Lifetime Achievement Award; and Janelle McIntyre, who was given the Power of One Award for her work with cancer patients.

Group awards were presented to Grassroots Day Resource Center in Jessup, for its work with residents in the Route 1 corridor, and the Rotary Club of Columbia/Patuxent, for its wide-ranging community projects.

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