A life of astronomy outreach

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I’ve just heard from guest blogger Donald Lubowich of Hofstra University about his upcoming Astronomy Night on the National Mall, which takes place April 28 (with a rain date of April 29) in Washington, D.C., and which Astronomy magazine and the Astronomy Foundation will be sponsoring this year. Lubowich delights in this kind of large-scale astronomy outreach, so in addition to helping raise awareness about the event, I thought it’d be instructive to learn a little more about his efforts. If you’ve wondered what more you could do to help promote our favorite hobby, look no further!

Bringing astronomy to the public has long been a goal for Donald Lubowich of Hofstra University. Here, a mother and son take spend a Halloween night enjoying the view. // Photo by Hofstra University
I’ve always been passionate about astronomy education and outreach, and have taught astronomy, physics, and teachers’ astronomy. I then branched out beyond the classroom and began a monthly Stars on Sundays program for kids of all ages, the first regularly scheduled public astronomy program in Nassau County, New York, with six telescope stations to reduce the waiting time for the attendees. Other ideas led to more successful special events — such as “Halloween Stars,” featuring costumed kids looking through telescopes, and a “Super Bowl Star Party” — that have attracted hundreds of people to astronomy, including many young girls (a demographic we often sorely lack). My edible astronomy demonstrations have also been a great way to introduce children to the fun and delicious side of the hobby.

In 2010, I created Astronomy Night on the National Mall with the support of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and with the participation of amateur astronomers and various professional groups. I have also enjoyed bringing astronomy and the wonders of the universe to scouts, churches, synagogues, conferences of ministers and rabbis, camps for special-needs children, Ronald McDonald Houses for extremely sick children, the World Science Festival in New York City, and the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.

Since 2009, my NASA-funded Music and Astronomy Under the Stars (MAUS) program has brought the stars to 50,000 music lovers at events such as the Newport Folk, Tanglewood, and Ravinia festivals, as well as concerts in local parks with the assistance of local astronomy clubs like the Amateur Observers’ Society of New York (recipient of the Astronomy magazine’s 2009 outreach award).

A young patient at a Ronald McDonald House stretches to observe Jupiter. Visiting children’s hospitals, music festivals, houses of worship, religious groups, and the National Mall, Lubowich has long sought to give everyone their first taste of the heavens through a telescope. // Photo by Paulo Bretones
MAUS is an evening, nighttime, and cloudy weather traveling exhibit combining solar, optical, and radio telescope observations; a live image projection system; large outdoor posters and banners; videos; and hands-on activities before and after the concerts or at intermission. These shows typically attract large enthusiastic crowds often with young children participating in this family learning experience. (Past performers at these concerts include Yo-Yo-Ma and the Chicago Symphony or Boston Symphony Orchestras, the McCoy Tyner Quartet with Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, the Stanley Clarke Band, Phish, Blood Sweat & Tears, Deep Purple, Patti Smith, Tony Orlando, and Ronan Tynan.)

These events can have a dramatic influence on peoples’ lives. One time, seeing the rings of Saturn so excited one of the children that he ran home across the street to tell his grandmother. A few minutes later, she came out of the house in her bathrobe and slippers to look through a telescope for the first time in her life! Most of the audiences I work with have never visited a science museum, planetarium, or star party, and it’s often the first time many of the children ever look through a telescope. Everyone leaves with information about how to continue that interest with local science museums, citizen science projects, astronomy educational sites, and astronomy clubs.

Not only do the attendees to these events get an eyeful, such as this one at a synagogue, but also their enthusiasm often excites other members of their family. // Photo by Donald Lubowich
My ultimate goal is to create national versions of these programs, expanding the reach of astronomy even further. With enough interest in the stars, there’s no telling how many people we could reach.

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