Thursday, 16 August 2012

Communicating Astronomy Conference

Communicating Science: A conference on Science Education and Public Outreach

Tucson, Arizona, USA 4-8 August 2012

What we did

Sadie Jones and Ally Caldecote went to Tucson, to participate in a conference on astronomy outreach. The first two days were a ‘Galileo Goes to Mars’ Teacher workshop, composed of astronomers and teachers. The following three days were a much larger conference of astronomers and educational researchers.

There was a mixture of lectures, discussion groups, hands-on activity workshops, poster presentations and software demonstrations.

Who we met

We met astronomers and educators from all over the globe. Of particular interest were some PGCE students who were invited to do science communication research as part of their studies at East Carolina University. One of the students, Sarah Guffey, has conducted research into the effectiveness of teaching using a planetarium setting. This is hugely relevant as Sadie spends the majority of her time taking a planetarium show into schools and Ally’s department hopes to purchase an inflatable planetarium soon, for her to use with school groups. Early research findings suggest that learning about astronomy is much more effective in a planetarium than on a 2 dimensional screen. Professor Sharon Schleigh whose background is in Astrophysics but now works in science education, was able to get a grant to work with the Education Department to do these research programs. From speaking at length with the 3 PGCE students it is clear that carrying out this science communication research has given them a better understanding of physics and an excitement for their futures in teaching. We feel that this idea of getting early career teachers from the Education department involved in real science education research is great, and would be something well worth considering.

We met Robert Hollow who conducts outreach across all of Australia, and has also run his ‘Pulse at Parkes’ workshops in both England and Wales. Rob has been doing outreach in CSIRO for more than 10 years, and is well travelled. We feel he is an excellent contact to bounce ideas off in the future. The ‘Pulse at Parkes’ radio astronomy workshops allow the students to analyse real data from the Parkes radio telescope. The idea is that in the future, this program will be similar to the ‘Galaxy Zoo’ project but using radio imagery/data rather than optical data. We feel it is important that students get excited by radio astronomy as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is currently being built in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand and pathfinder telescopes for this array already exist in the UK (e.g. LOFAR). Many jobs will be created in the future through radio astronomy so it is important that the students get excited about it. Sadie is particularly interested in implementing these workshops in her outreach as her PhD thesis was on the subject of radio astronomy.

Paul Roche and Sarah Roberts are astronomers based at the University of Glamorgan in Wales and were keen to hear about the Ogden Trust and are interested to find out more about working with them. They run the Faulkes Telescope in Wales, which is part of the LCOGT telescope network (which will soon have ~40 telescopes across the world, we also met Rachel Ross who works for the LCOGT). This program allows schools and teachers time on the telescopes, to collect data in real time. Sadie attended their talk on use of their interactive website where students can make their own asteroid and see its effects on a chosen location on the earth. They also told us about the numerous educational resources which exist on the their website which we can use in our outreach activities. Paul has also offered to help Sadie with the ‘wording’ of the questions used in the outreach evaluation forms in order to get some critical responses from teachers.

Shawn Laatsch runs a planetarium in Hawaii, has promised to send Sadie some resources that they give out to teachers to study pre and post planetarium show activities.

Zoe Buck has done research into how people respond to astronomy visualisations in planetariums. She gave us advice on evaluating our planetarium shows, and getting students to fill out our questionnaires by offering small incentives to those who fill out the forms e.g. colour changing pencils for younger children.

We discussed

• Reaching students where there is a language or cultural barrier, and a variety of strategies to involve those students equally. • Using social media such as facebook, twitter and blogging to increase impact • Using music alongside astronomy to widen its appeal to those who might consider themselves ‘not very scientific’ • Using mobile phone apps to promote learning, especially after the main outreach event has taken place • Rumours of doomsday happening in December 2012 (something which is worrying a number of students), and the corresponding facts. • Hands on activities for the students to understand the scale of the planets in the solar system, and their relative distances. • Mars curiosity landing (live viewing) and understanding of the extreme engineering involved in the mission.

What is the impact?

We found that people were very keen to hear about our work in the UK, and how we went about it. If we attend this conference in the future we would be very keen to give a presentation (either individually or jointly) about the work that we do.

We will develop and sustain connections with (particularly) Zoe Buck from the University of California Santa Cruz and Sarah Guffey from East Carolina University about their work on how students learn in a planetarium environment in order to make sure we are making full use of best practice and research findings.

Ally will encourage the academic staff responsible for the purchase of the inflatable planetarium to do so.

Sadie is going to implement the scale of the solar system activities, and a section on the Mars Curiosity rover into her ‘Aliens in the Universe’ outreach workshop.

We both feel much better prepared to answer questions from worried students about the rumours behind the Doomsday predictions and explain their origin and scientific basis (or lack thereof).

We feel freshly inspired in our work after spending time with people who share our passion for physics outreach and share similar goals to The Ogden Trust.

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