Astronomy at the Beach: A model skygazing outreach event

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, September 12, 2011

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of being asked to come to Astronomy at the Beach near Detroit, Michigan, the 15th annual public star party put on by seven different astronomy clubs in the metro area. Despite the fact that I was in Green Bay for the Packers-Saints game on Thursday night (and arrived back home at 2 a.m. Friday), I was a good guy and got up, made my flight, and was Detroit-bound by 10 a.m.

Skygazers get looks through telescopes at Astronomy at the Beach near Detroit, Michigan, Saturday night, September 10, 2011. All photos by Dave Eicher.
Astronomy Editor Dave Eicher addressed the crowd with "New developments in astronomy," September 10, 2011.
John Schroer or the Detroit Science Center is a key player in organizing and running Astronomy at the Beach.
Crowds of as many as 200 amateur astronomers at a time listened to public talks given at the event.
Amateur astronomers from seven Detroit area clubs set up telescopes for public viewing.
The idea behind Astronomy at the Beach is to give as many kids and young adults as possible their first look through a telescope.
As the sky began to darken on Saturday, September 10, many new astronomy enthusiasts caught a glimpse of the bright Moon through one of many telescopes.
Astronomy at the Beach concluded with a couple hours of viewing of assorted sky objects for the 500 or so visitors who stopped by.
John Schroer of the Detroit Science Center was the contact person who asked me to come. (John also happens to be president of the Great Lakes Planetarium Association.) When I accepted, I had not realized how unique this event is, and how in many respects it is the poster child for how astronomy clubs should put on a public astronomy event. Suffice it to say that I was thrilled with what I saw and experienced, and I enjoyed interacting with the astronomy club folks I got to know and the public at large as I gave three talks in the span of 24 hours on the revolution in understanding big questions in astronomy and cosmology over the past 15 years.

As amateur astronomers know, we could use more young folks in our hobby. Detroit’s astronomy clubs have done a sensational job of creating an event that attracts them by the hundreds. Astronomy at the Beach is held each year at Kensington Metropark, a beautiful lake-filled area with winding paths for hiking, bike riding, exploring, and natural scenes. Inside the park, Maple Beach on Kent Lake features a nice building for displays and vendors, a very large tent for talks, and an attractive strip of beach along which astronomy enthusiasts set up dozens of telescopes for viewing.

What makes this event so special — and attracts such a large volume of kids, teens, and those in their 20s and 30s — is cooperation. Seven astronomy clubs are actively involved in the effort, and all have members on hand who participate energetically in getting things done. They are the Astronomy Club at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti; the Ford Amateur Astronomy Club in Dearborn; the Oakland Astronomy Club in Rochester; the Seven Ponds Astronomy Club in Dryden; the Sunset Astronomical Society in Bay City; the University Lowbrow Astronomers in Ann Arbor; and the Warren Astronomical Society in Warren. Members of each of these clubs flawlessly interact to help publicize this event via local newspapers, an occasional local TV mention, and the power of the Detroit Science Center.

The events are kid friendly. Observing through the telescopes is, of course, key — but the excitement over astronomy in this community is palpable. We had more than 100 people attend and listen to talks, including many hyper-enthusiastic kids, on Friday night — despite the fact that a thunderstorm was rolling over us! Throughout the weekend, talks included night sky planetarium presentations, a 3-D computerized movie tour of the universe (with anaglyph glasses), guest speakers such as myself, a youth sky tour with laser pointers, demonstrations of fun science like a “fire tornado” and freezing various objects with liquid nitrogen, an astronomy viewing scavenger hunt, astronomy-themed movies, talks about choosing telescopes for beginners, space exploration displays, vendors offering inexpensive things, and solar viewing. It makes for a festival atmosphere that really attracts the young folks like a magnet.

Speakers included John Potts and John Schroer from the Detroit Science Center; Norbert Vance from Eastern Michigan University; Gerald Dunifer from Wayne State University; Dave D’Onofrio, Diane Hall, and Jon Blum from the Warren Astronomical Society; and Gordon Hansen from the Ford Amateur Astronomy Club.

I strongly encourage you to attend this event if you can next year — it is a model of how astronomy events should be occurring around the country. Despite only partly clear skies on Saturday, a bright Moon, and competition from the University of Michigan’s first-ever night football game, we had several hundred very excited people at the event listening to talks and observing the heavens.

Here’s a message to astronomy clubs, planetaria, and science centers around the country: pay attention to what Detroit is doing as a community. It would very much benefit you to copy the model and apply it to your city. The United States and the world needs much more interest in astronomy and science from young folks, and this event is just the way to get it going.


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