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Reaching out across the generations

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A Penn State department has built a stellar reputation for its science outreach.

17 October 2018


2018 AstroFest shirtJust like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and Saturn’s iconic rings are to each of them, outreach is to Penn State’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics—an integral part of its identity. “It’s a big part of the culture in this department,” says Chris Palma. “It’s part of our national reputation.”

For the past 17 years, Palma has headed the department’s outreach—the capstone of which is an immensely popular program, now in its 20th year, called AstroFest. The brainchild of three Penn State Astronomy Club members—undergraduates Jane Rigby, Karen Knierman, and Nahks Tr’Ehnl—AstroFest was conceived as a way to attract an audience from the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, known in local circles as Arts Fest, which brings thousands of people to State College each July.

“We’d been doing public stargazing events on Friday evenings,” Tr’Ehnl recalls, “And we thought, ‘There are always more people in town during Arts Fest; maybe we can have an open house in the evening during Arts Fest, as well!’”

A dual major studying astronomy and art, Tr’Ehnl had been making space-themed paintings, drawings, and other creations. “That became our Arts Fest tie-in,” he says. “We set out a small gallery of space art that I had created, and I gave a presentation about the history of art and science. We asked other members of the astronomy department to contribute short presentations, and we opened up the rooftop with the telescopes and had an open house event.”

So AstroFest was born, and the response from the public surprised everyone. Jane Charlton, who was then the department’s outreach chair and also the Astronomy Club’s adviser, remembers: “That first year, we really had no idea what to expect. We were thinking that getting maybe a hundred people would be really super, and we certainly got many more than that—like three or four hundred each night.” Every year since, Charlton has led the event to expand in ever-new directions—and now, twenty years later, AstroFest features more than a dozen activities each night, put on by more than 100 faculty, staff, and student volunteers for an audience numbering in the thousands.

A look back at some of the annual AstroFest t-shirt designs over the years. Credit: Nahks Tr’Ehnl.
A look back at some of the annual AstroFest t-shirt designs over the years. Credit: Nahks Tr’Ehnl.

Palma joined the team in 2002, under Charlton’s mentorship, and together they have witnessed the growth of a dedicated following that now spans generations. “There are people who have this event on their calendar and they intend to come every single year,” Palma says. “Now that it’s twenty years old, we have a following who have grown up with AstroFest, and that’s really fun.” Some of those people have later come to study astronomy at Penn State, and Palma has stories of current undergraduates whose parents were bringing them to the department’s outreach events as early as kindergarten. A number of the students he has taught have, in turn, made their careers in outreach, and some have even started their own AstroFest-like events at universities and other institutions nationwide. One alumna, Michele Crowl, went on to complete a doctoral degree in science education at Penn State and is now the executive director of the children’s science center Discovery Space, right here in Happy Valley.

The greater purpose of AstroFest—and all of Penn State’s astronomy outreach—Charlton says, “is getting the people who are most interested to pursue this as a career and getting people who are pursuing research to make this a part of the culture. But we’re also getting kids excited about thinking ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What’s out there in the universe?’ We like to have as many people as possible come in and share with them, and it really grows.”

Throughout the year, Palma, Charlton, and other members of the department do a variety of outreach—including hosting weekly stargazing events at Davey Lab’s rooftop observatory and putting on planetarium shows for school groups, Scout troops, and other organizations. They also take their outreach on the road, travelling to local high schools to host events for students and conduct workshops for teachers. And they offer continuing education programs, such as Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) courses, and other activities for adult learners. Incredibly, all the faculty, staff, and students who do this work with Palma—and there are many—volunteer. “We really do get a large number of people,” he says, “and they can all pick and choose how they want to be involved. With everybody finding their own way to be a part of things, it lets us have a really multi-faceted program.”

“If you add it up,” Charlton says, “in a year there are about ten thousand people impacted by our programs—so that’s quite amazing!”

And the department’s outreach continues to grow. There are plans in the works for a new planetarium in the Arboretum, and Charlton and Palma are working to launch their own startup company focused on teaching astronomy through interactive learning technologies—namely educational video gaming.

“I think we’re near reaching a license agreement with Penn State,” Charlton says. “We have a video game version of the Astro 001 course, and we’ll be marketing that to students at other universities. But we also want to go into more-recreational gaming— semi-educational, but not incorrect in any way—for younger people.”

Charlton envisions schools across the country adopting a curriculum module where, for example, students can play a video game to learn about the solar system.

“The teachers wouldn’t need to teach anything, because it would all be in the game, and we would provide materials to help the teachers guide the students’ learning,” she explains. “We want to produce things that are fun, maybe get into virtual reality experiences, e-books, things for younger kids, and really expand our reach in exciting new ways.”

By Seth Palmer

Chris Palma is a teaching professor of astronomy and astrophysics and the associate head of the undergraduate program in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State.

Jane Charlton is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and was awarded the University’s inaugural Teaching and Learning with Technology Impact Award and its Teaching Fellow Award for her work creating the online Astro 001 course.

Nahks Tr’Ehnl is a multimedia specialist in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State and works on the online Astro 001 course and other multimedia initiatives.