Astronomy Day has passed, but it’s not the only time to introduce people to the skies. Astronomy magazine’s Discover the Universe program works with clubs all year to bring sidewalk astronomy to the astronomically challenged. Gerry Lyons, public outreach coordinator of the Sussex County Astronomy Society, sent me this report of the group's four most recent efforts:
The Sussex County Astronomy Society held its first ever public event April 6 at a prime oceanfront location at the intersection of the Boardwalk and Bandstand in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The group saw at least 225 passersby stop for a look through its telescopes. // All photos courtesy Gerry Lyons
Friday night, April 6, was the Sussex County Astronomy Society’s (SCAS) first ever major public event. We had a prime public oceanfront location at the intersection of the Boardwalk and Bandstand in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. This is the major crossroad of public traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular. We scheduled the event to begin at 8 p.m., to coincide with the Full Moon rising out of the ocean; this caused foot traffic to stop in their tracks on the Boardwalk.
Most of the visitors hailed from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia (including a couple of congressional staffers on a weekend break at the beach). These folks were excited to look through the half-dozen telescopes we had set up and to talk to SCAS members about what they saw, all for no charge. The participants could observe the Moon, planets, and other highlights in the night sky, hear about the effects of light pollution, and walk away with free handouts about astronomy and space sciences. We emphasized the free materials they could also find on the Internet and sites they could visit for more information.
Our estimates led us to expect talking to maybe 80 or 100 people, but we later conservatively figured our crowd was at least 225 strong. For about two hours, we had lines four people wide, waiting to look through the telescopes. We basically shut down foot traffic on the Boardwalk. Repeatedly, we heard the awe and disbelief of the visitors when they looked through the scopes. More than 90 percent said they had never seen a free public event like this before, and they wanted more. The SCAS members were elated by the response.
Saturday night, April 7, was our second public event. This took place in Lewes, Delaware, on the sidewalk along the main road, approximately four blocks from the water. We received phone calls all afternoon from people wanting information about the event. The weather cooperated, with crystal clear skies featuring excellent seeing conditions. In contrast to the previous night, mostly local residents visited this event. We often heard from these folks about the “telescope in the garage” that they didn’t know how to use. Many also said they didn’t know SCAS even existed. For this very reason, we had gotten business cards printed that included our contact information. We also provided information and listed websites where they could get free follow-up materials. We estimated attendance at approximately 125 visitors.
The Sussex County Astronomy Society kicked off its second weekend of astronomy outreach April 13 in Lewes, Deleware. The event grew a crowd of about 80.
Our third sidewalk star party was the next Friday night, April 13. This took place in Lewes, the same location as last time. (This event followed coverage of all our efforts on the local CBS TV affiliate!) We again were fortunate to have clear skies and good conditions. Attendance was smaller, though, about 80 visitors. Among them were the local police officers on duty, who checked us out and then stayed in the area, frequently returning to look through the scopes and asking a lot of questions. They, in turn, called their spouses and friends to come by, who brought their kids.
Finally, Saturday night, April 14, was the last of our four public events. Unfortunately, the weather caught up with us. Skies were cloudy and overcast, allowing for little visibility; attendance was only 28. Only Venus occasionally peeked out to present a telescopic target. We made the best of things, however, and still had a table set up with a laptop showing the night sky as it appeared behind the clouds. We also had our handouts available to distribute — all free of charge, of course.
We had a great time, but also learned a few more things to bring along next time:
1. A step stool at each active telescope to allow young children and shorter adults good access
2. A printed list of websites and free applications for the public (especially teens) to provide more information and further their space education
3. A larger amount of SCAS business cards and business material for anyone who wanted our contact info or was curious about how to get equipment
Lastly, I need to thank Skip from the Westminster Astronomy Club, who provided a huge amount of help and lots of free handouts that we could distribute at our events. And thanks also to the Astronomy Foundation, Astronomy magazine, Astronomers Without Borders, and Night Sky Network, who co-sponsored these events with us. From these four events, we have been contacted to hold several future star parties, including at a Boy Scout/Cub Scout campout in Delaware that should provide about 1,500 visitors. I think we might need more handouts!
Thanks for sharing your successes and advice with us, Gerry! Needing more handouts and seeing thick lines are the kinds of problem we’d all like to see more of, and we’re glad we could help your marathon of outreach. If you want to know how Astronomy magazine’s Discover the Universe program can assist your club, please email me at email@example.com.