Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reaching out for CANDELS outreach

On May 28th 2013, our blog turned 1! So Jeyhan and I decided, it's time to share what we have done outreach-wise with other people outside the CANDELS team that are interested in Education and Public Outreach (E/PO). At the same time we wanted to see what other people are doing in terms of outreach. And what better opportunity than the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP). Off we went with our poster under our arms to San Jose, where this year's meeting took place from July 20th to July 24th.

The annual meeting of the ASP is structured very similar to the annual meetings of the American Astronomical Society (AAS, we reported on those here and here). There are plenary sessions which are held in bigger auditoriums, so everyone at the meeting can attend, smaller concurrent sessions that anyone attending chooses according to their own interests and poster sessions during which everyone can come and read your poster and chat with you about it. This year's ASP meeting was special in that it combined two very important topics in one meeting. One half of the conference was called "Cosmos in the Classroom" and all sessions belonging to this category focused more on how to best teach Astronomy in school and college classrooms. The other half was called "Ensuring STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) Literacy" which was more focused towards general outreach activities, such as our blog. Naturally, the background of the meeting attendants was quite widely spread, there were teachers for every grade, scientists like us that do outreach in their spare time and those that are hired to do outreach professionally. 

Jeyhan in front of our poster. Image credit: J. Pforr
However, the ASP meeting is much smaller in numbers compared to the AAS meetings. Fortunately, that meant that our poster was up all three meeting days and we had ample opportunity to talk and connect to other like-minded people, gather feedback and collect new ideas. 

On our poster we shared what CANDELS is and what our blog is about, what different types of posts we have, etc. We also gave an overview of statistics on the blog, how many people stop by the blog on a daily basis (on average of course), how many people have viewed it since we started and which parts of the world we have reached so far.

"Chat with an Astronomer" Poster at the ASP meeting. You can
see the little iPad next to the poster which connected to the
astronomer on the other side and provided an opportunity to
try it all out. Image credit: J. Pforr
We heard a lot about the outreach other people are doing and stumbled across fun things. One of them was the WorldWide Telescope. Interested parties could put on one of those virtual goggles, were given a game controller, and could fly through the Universe in proper SciFi fashion. 

Another cool thing was the "chat with an astronomer" poster by Genevieve de Messieres from the Smithsonian Institution and her colleagues. They explained how they are using their system at the Public Observatory at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.  During some of the poster sessions, there was an iPad and a microphone attached to the poster board next to the poster where you could actually talk to and see an astronomer on the other side of the country. I tried it, it worked really well!

The poster right next to us presented a new version of the game MyStar in which you build your own solar systems in our galaxy and can learn a lot about planet formation and extrasolar planetary systems. If you haven't tried it, I suggest you give it a go!

In another corner of the poster exhibition hall, there was a huge inflatable planetarium waiting to be tried out. You already heard more about a similar one in this blog post.

Right next to it, there was a huge blue screen. This was our chance to get recorded while "being in space". So if you stood in front of it, you were interviewed very briefly and filmed. The blue screen was then digitally replaced by an extragalactic space background so it would seem like you're actually in space. If I ever get sent the video of this, I will add it here.

Camilla Corona SDO visiting our poster! Image credit: J. Pforr
But besides all the fun and gadgety stuff to try out we also learned what challenges teachers and educators face when teaching astronomy and sharing their science with the world. We learned how to best put an Astro 101 course together and how to evaluate the success of an outreach project or college course. In interactive group work sessions we shared and found other creative ways to reach more astronomy interested people and how to improve communication.

All in all it was quite an information-packed meeting with lots of interaction. On the last day, we even had a special guest visiting our poster. It was Camilla Corona SDO! For those of you who have not heard about Camilla, have a look here, she's the former mascot of the Solar Dynamics Observatory now turned STEM ambassador, and she was very interested in our poster.  

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