Guest blog: "Sharing the universe — why astronomy outreach matters," by Benjamin Palmer

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, November 10, 2011

Yesterday would have been Carl Sagan’s 77th birthday. It seems unreal to those of us who were privileged to know him that he has been gone for 15 years. In the spirit of what Carl would like most, here is a great essay about sharing astronomy from our young friend Benjamin Palmer of Queensbury, New York. Benjamin won this year’s Youth Essay Contest, which netted him a trip to the Northeast Astronomy Forum, and also is the Youth Committee Chair for the Astronomy Foundation. Enjoy.

Credit: M. Rasid Tugral
“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however reassuring and satisfying.” — Carl Sagan

Astronomy. A holistic hobby, a scintillating science, and a provocative passion. Few academic fields boast such dynamism. Yet, amid the fast-paced backdrop of the 21st century, astronomical interest is waning. Now more than ever, it has become critical for astronomical observers, educators, and youth alike to partake in the elegance of our universe and answer the exigent question: Why does astronomy outreach matter?

Inspiring tomorrow’s astronomers
Spread across the globe, our future scientists will be tapped from the approximately 1.8 billion young people 18 and under. But among the scientific disciplines, astronomy is not garnering enough widespread attention.

Astronomy is a reflective, groundbreaking field. However, this is not the engaging side most youngsters initially discover. The perception that astronomy is a slow, rigorous undertaking leaves many youth uninspired. They are left in scientific purgatory, confused by the seemingly daunting mathematics inherent in astrophysics.

Another problem is cost and accessibility. Some young would-be scientists harbor a veritable thirst for learning, but they are precluded from pursuing their dreams due to modest economic backgrounds.  Although their astronomical interest may be great, securing comprehensive educational resources, telescopes, and accessories can be a formidable challenge.

Allowing astronomy to subside in young minds is a predicament close to existential. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative to address these issues with equal concern.

We can initiate fundraisers to provide the tangible resources young astronomers require. Through the widespread distribution of user-friendly books, educational pamphlets, and other materials, youth can attain a deeper appreciation of the heavens. We must exploit the advantages of digital and social media, incorporating astrophysics into the lifestyle of the young observer. Taking this concept a step further, employing the usage of cosmological videos, webisodes, animations, and slideshows can virtually enhance their astronomical learning curve.

In our classrooms, teachers can step up to the plate. By working with amateur and professional outreach observers, educators can incorporate astronomical concepts into science curriculums. Additionally, they can illuminate future career options in the scientific arena and mentor those who are motivated to pursue them.

High school students must be afforded more opportunities to grow and develop as astronomers. With a solid foundation of astronomical concepts, higher education will be far more meaningful.

Finally, promising youths need more venues to express their astronomical interest. Establishing more astrophysical scholarships for advanced study should be a keen objective in the immediate future.

With the right instruments, literature, and encouragement in hand, young astronomers can partake in the wonders of an exhilarating avocation. As dedicated astronomical enthusiasts, we must take it upon ourselves to share the natural magnificence of our field. When it comes to astronomy’s future, fostering young scientists is an essential mission. By working together, we can inspire the astronomers of tomorrow.

Astronomy, a global force for hope
Astronomical outreach isn’t about science alone. It often serves a different, yet no less vital, purpose: giving hope.

Astronomers have been influential good Samaritans in the global community. With ready telescopes and open hearts, many have channeled their scientific prowess into compelling ways of giving back. These incredible astronomers have brought out the best in what I’d term “philanthropic science.”

The amazing efforts of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA) are a stirring example. In recent years, the IfA has been bringing astronomy into the Women’s Community Correctional Facility in Olomana, Hawaii. Through astronomical lectures and STARLAB planetarium presentations, the IfA presents its students with certificates upon completion of the college-equivalent course, giving a new lease on life to dozens.

While most have been privileged to gaze at the visual elegance of the cosmos, many individuals are physically hindered from doing so. For them, observing astronomical marvels isn’t as effortless as walking out under the stars.

Astronomers have risen to this challenge wholeheartedly. A particularly inspirational setting is helping the blind.  In this realm, astronomers have contributed in a variety of ways. Take educator Ben Wentworth, a two-time Disney award-wining teacher who has devoted his life to sharing cosmic wonders with his students. At the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in Colorado Springs, using everything from tactile graphs to 3-D models, Wentworth painted a living picture of the universe, giving his students an accurate window to explore the cosmos.

Another fantastic representative is astronomer Noreen Grice, who collaborated with Simon Steel and Doris Daou to author the pioneering book Touch the Invisible Sky. Funded through a NASA grant, this invaluable reference affords blind readers an opportunity to visually conceptualize the universe. Large Braille type along with tactile inscriptions on illustrations gives the book a genuine sense of astrophysical reality. A photographic anthology from iconic spacecraft including Hubble and Chandra, it enables visually impaired readers to get a sense of nebulae and galaxies based on the location of different inscriptions.

These remarkable individuals are an acute testament to the philanthropic core of our field. In the coming years, outreach astronomers must continue the precedent they’ve set. In our hometowns, we can organize events to share the splendor of the nighttime sky. We can volunteer our time, skills, and instruments to charities large and small while spreading significant hope along the way. Regardless of scientific or physical ability, an astronomer is ensconced in all of us.

Power to the people
“Bringing the universe to as many individuals as possible.” This phrase forms the beating heart of astronomical outreach. The past decade has revealed a substantial number of amateur and professional observers committed to cultivating astronomical interest among the public.

In today’s astronomical community, the amplified presence of citizen science permits the average individual to significantly contribute to modern science. Today’s outreach astronomers have distinct advantages over their predecessors. However, these advantages are only retained through constant application. There are several ways to do so.

Among the most effective of these formats has been sidewalk astronomy. By bringing the universe to a local street corner, sidewalk astronomers amalgamate astrophysics into the lives of countless individuals.

In orchestrating such outreach events, amateur astronomers can be creative and enterprising. I recall a family trip to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor where two astronomers, armed with Schmidt-Cassegrain and refractor telescopes, treated eager crowds to outstanding views of the Moon and Jupiter. However, these dynamic observers took things one step further. Following every turn at the eyepiece, they presented each person with a graph explaining Jupiter’s cloud belts, and a homemade sticker, proclaiming, “I just went to the Moon and back!” Astronomers like them embody the living spirit of astronomical outreach.

Through sidewalk astronomy and educational star parties, amateur observers can share their knowledge at the eyepiece and ignite astronomical intrigue. Volunteer at your local astronomy club or observatory. If you are an experienced observer, get involved with a formal outreach mission like the Astronomy Foundation. The only thing more gratifying than discovering that elusive nebula yourself is sharing the pervasive thrill with others.

We’re all in this together
Astronomical outreach has reached a watershed moment, and astronomers of every age, background, and skill level cannot linger on the sidelines.

There is far more at stake then the future existence of our hobby. Astronomy’s intrinsic connection to science, philosophy, and the human element are sustained through the tireless efforts of astronomical observers.

The universe is a unique and powerful motivator, and there are legions of individuals unaware of its beauty. There is sufficient sky for everyone to embrace, and now is the time to share it.

Tags: youth
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