Education and Public Outreach at Astronomy Meetings

(To be published in Spark - Summer 2015) 

By: Debbie Kovalsky, AAS Exhibits Coordinator
Photos: Joson Images

I recall learning Newton’s laws of motion in physics class.  The teacher presented us with the formula F=ma.  No problem, it was just math, I could do that.  But, until I entered the lab, the concepts of force, mass and acceleration meant nothing to me other than variables in an equation.   Once it clicked, I proceeded to drive the teacher mad because I wouldn’t accept the concept of a vacuum – we don’t live in a vacuum!  He promised we’d get to all my questions through experimentation.

That physics lab provided an understanding between math and the world around me.  Experiential learning allowed me to understand concepts presented in a textbook.  I knew that, learning by doing, would be critical for my understanding and retention.

Years later, I found myself speaking to one of the many exhibitors at an American Astronomical Society conference.  We spoke about her work in education and public outreach and the multiple interactive science festivals that she had planned in her city.   The idea occurred to both of us that we could bring the same concept to the communities where the AAS meets.  Presenting opportunities to local students to interact with world-renowned astronomers, engineers and scientists could have a significant impact on their future.  And so, the AAS Student Education Outreach Program began in Anchorage, Alaska in 2012.

AAS meetings attract many companies, space missions and research institutions that choose to exhibit. The representatives are only too happy to volunteer one afternoon to lead a hands-on science activity with local students. 

The program typically includes 150-250 local students from underserved minority populations, STEM programs and home school populations.  We welcome middle-school through junior college students.  Through a generous contribution from our long-standing sponsor, Associated Universities, Inc. we are able to provide transportation and additional resources to provide this program free of charge.

The day begins with a welcome address by an AAS member who works in a particularly exciting area that intrigues the students. Past speakers have included former astronaut Dr. John Grunsfeld, NASA Astrophysics Director, Paul Hertz, astrobiologist Dr. Aomawa Shields, exoplanet hunter, Courtney Dressing among others.  These speakers share their own journey into a science career and the experiences that inspired them.  Students are given an opportunity to ask questions with these engaging science leaders.

During the second phase of the program, students are escorted into the large exhibit hall to partake in hands-on activities. Over the years, they participate in experiential learning in the areas of space telescopes, big data, black holes, exoplanets, radio astronomy, optical astronomy, dark matter, exploring the cosmos, scale of the solar system, spectroscopy, and gravitational waves.  They also build pulsars, interferometers, planispheres and convex lenses.  They experiment with infrared cameras, solar telescopes and detecting exoplanets. These afternoons spent interacting with our exhibitors has sparked a light in so many to continue pursuing science and math interests.  

As the students leave the convention center, they are given a backpack filled with resources to continue their exploration.  The students, teachers, parents, scientists and visitors are all filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment as they depart.  The excitement in their faces and chatter among their peers encourage us to continue bringing this event to other cities.

As with all programs, there have been challenges presented along the way.  Cutbacks in education and public outreach budgets have left us short staffed at some exhibits, but the gracious volunteer core from the astronomical community has stepped up when expertise was needed. 

Unfortunately the biggest challenge we have faced is recruiting students for the event.  Months prior to coming, we reach out to local school systems, STEM programs, home school networks, camps and science museums to publicize the program.   We provide an easy way to sign up and provide transportation funds if necessary.  If teachers are interested, often they are told that their school can’t support students being out of the classroom for field trips.  In other circumstances reaching the right people in a city we are unfamiliar with is the biggest challenge.   Our hope is publicity in publications like this one will allow us to serve more students.

We would love to welcome your schools and students to our outreach program.  In the next 24 months we will be visiting Honolulu, HI;  Kissimmee, FL; San Diego, CA and Grapevine, TX.  Please contact us at exhibits@aas.org if you are interested in participating.

Now as an adult, my interest in learning hasn’t ceased and techniques of experimentation prove successful in my case.  In the words of the great philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Sign up for the August Event in Honolulu, HI