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:
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.
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 access2. A printed list of websites and free applications for the public (especially teens) to provide more information and further their space education3. 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.