Friday, August 9, 2013

The Inflativerse - Bringing the Stars to ... Wherever We Want

Today's blog post is somewhat different to what you normally read on this blog. Although this project is not what we (as CANDELS astronomers) technically do for a living, projects like this are an increasingly important part of our job description: Outreach. It's not 'science' as such, but it is an important part of science communication and scientific education. And just as importantly: It is FUN and we hope to encourage people to start a scientific career. Today, I want to introduce to you 'The Inflativerse', a mobile planetarium project that I started at The University of Nottingham while I was still there and which is now being run by a team of astronomy PhD students and undergrad volunteers. But let me start from the beginning.

In spring 2011, we, the Astronomy Group at The University of Nottingham, UK, were asked to participate in a 'Big Bang Science Fair' in Nottingham. This was part of a bigger series of events all through the country. The main part of these fairs is formed by school pupils who present scientific projects. At the same time, the organizers invited scientific departments and organizations to present themselves. 

Astronomy is an area of science where this is usually very easy to do. All we usually need to do is show pretty pictures and give public talks which all of us have up their sleeves and prepared. However, at this particular event, we were explicitly told to NOT present talks, but to present something else. This immediately becomes difficult (Think of it, what would YOU do? If you didn't have any money to do it?). In the end we managed to come up with some nice ideas, offered an 'ask the astronomer' booth (something that I guess every astronomy department has offered many times) and brought different light bulbs and spectrometers for people to look at them. The different light bulbs use different molecules/atoms as lighting material, so their spectra look very different. We were then able to explain how astronomers can use information like this to find out physical properties of astronomical objects. This, however, is a different topic and has been discussed in this blog in a previous post.

More importantly for this blog post, Nina Hatch and myself had this 'crazy idea' over tea when trying to figure out what we would bring to the Big Bang Science Fair: "Wouldn't it be great if we had a small planetarium that we could take to events like this?" We knew some universities had these and they formed the backbone of their respective outreach programs. In fact, Nina had already worked with one of them when she was a student at Edinburgh. What we did not know was where to get one, what they cost, what different versions there are. So, we went home, had a rather extensive search online and found out that not only are there several commercial suppliers of these planetaria, but there was actually quite a variety of different types. There are digital and non-digital, different sizes from 3 meters to about 10 meters across, different domes (some where you have to crawl in, some with a zip as an entrance, some self-standing, some only inflated by themselves -- e.g. deflating when the door is open -- and some that looked like bouncy castles.

For money reasons, we decided to go for a non-digital one. They are usually simply a small light source (in our case a LED) over which you put a filter (basically a big black box with holes, although the brighter stars might have lenses, too). They are about half the price as digital ones, but obviously have the disadvantage that one has to buy particular filters to project particular things, so we couldn't just plug in a laptop and show whatever we wanted. On the other hand, it meant that our 'projection' was not pixelated. I have seen digital planetaria now that use 'old-ish & cheap' projectors and they look terrible, a 'pixel' on the dome is up to 1cm across, hardly what we call 'good resolution'. Today, I am quite happy with our decision. Only recently do projectors have high enough resolution that one could have another go. Only these days have projectors got good enough resolution that one could have another go. More about that at the end of this post.

A Typical Starlab Planetarium.
Image Credit: The Inflativerse Team
We decided to buy a '' planetarium with 10 filters, which came to ~£17000, including some additional equipment like boxes for transport, a small netbook for additional activities, etc.. Plus running costs.

As you can tell, this is rather expensive for the odd event/fair to visit, but at this point we had gotten so excited about the project that we wanted to take it much further than initially thought of. From our web search we knew that several semi-commmercial suppliers in the East Midlands offered planetaria experiences to schools (find out about planetaria in your UK region here), but they all charged the schools £400-£500 for a day, which many schools can't or don't want to spend because they need it for (admittedly) more important issues. We decided to take the planetarium to schools for free in order to offer this experience to many school-kids, tying in with the school curriculum. Specifically, we wanted to target 'Widening Participation' Schools. 'Widening Participation' schemes in the UK are trying to get people from under-privileged areas/schools into university. Most universities have WP programs and contacts at schools, so we would not even have to start from scratch, the contacts were already in place.

So our next task was to find the money. We asked Michael Merrifield, the head of our department, for advice and he suggested a few people to talk to  We contacted two or three people and got a reply from all of them pretty much immediately, some even pointing us onward to the same persons. It turns out (and here's a god tip for departments) that it was (by then) the end of June and the end of the financial year in the UK (or at least Nottingham) is July 31st. That means that some budgets throughout the university had some money left that 'needed' spending and were happy to spend it on projects like this. 'All we needed to do' was write proper proposals for them, which we did straight away, including a pre-invoice and official cost estimate. We managed all this in time and in the end the Nottingham part of HEIF (Higher Education and Innovation Fund) agreed to cover £15000 of the equipment and the School of Physics agreed to cover the rest of the equipment as well as the running costs of the project (e.g. car hires for transport). The only requirement: The equipment had to be delivered (not ordered) by the end of the financial year, which was only about two weeks away at that moment. With lots of help from the UK contact of 'starlab', our finance department, which managed to pay everything as fast as they could, and the starlab shipping team, we indeed made this deadline. (As an additional remark: After we had placed the order, a different grant, the 'University Annual Fund' also agreed to fund the entire project. This Fund is run using alumni donations to the university for projects like this. That means that in the end we would have had enough money to buy a digital planetarium. Now, however, the Annual Fund only had to cover the rest of the equipment, which is why it should be mentioned here, too. And as I said, we are not unhappy with our decision at the time to order a non-digital planetarium.)

Inflating the planetarium for the first time.
Image Credit: The Inflativerse Team
So, by the 1st of August, we had a planetarium at the University, put it up in one of our teaching rooms and simply had a go at it. We were a group of about 8 people, playing with it, trying all the different filters and, admittedly, lying in the dome, gazing at the night sky. I remember I was amazed by the quality of the projection and I think for most of us it was hard to force ourselves to pack it up and go back to work after about 4 hours.

The first two things we needed was another person to help out with organizing the project and a name for the project. Nina was about to start maternity leave and I didn't want to handle it all by myself, firstly because we thought that it was going to be a lot of work and secondly because I was only on a 3 year contract and we wanted some 'consistency' in the project which is easier to achieve with more people where not everyone leaves at the same time. Lucky for us one of our students, Evelyn Johnston, seemed very eager on our test run and after what we thought would require some convincing (but turned out to be simply asking) she agreed to help. We also got Meghan Gray involved as a staff contact to oversee the project. Throughout the 2 years this has been running now, she has given use very good advice at times and in case she reads this, a 'Thank You' is in order. 

Name-wise, we had several ideas, here's a selection: Nottingham Spaceport, Astronomy road show, Star Dome, Stars on Tour, Nottingham Mobile Planetarium, 2π in the Sky, Universe in a Tent, Universe in a Nottshell. You can tell that astronomers are rather bad at making good names. Many of these names were already taken, some even by companies (e.g. suppliers of inflatable domes), which we wanted to avoid. Jamie Ownsworth, one of our PhD students and also a CANDELS member, at some point threw 'The Inflativerse' into the ring (from 'inflating' and 'universe'). Some people didn't like it in the beginning, but over the next days, this became the clear favourite, so we decided to name it 'The Inflativerse' in the end.

Evelyn giving a show (with some spooky light
for the photo, usually it's dark in the dome).

Image Credit: University of Nottingham
Through contacts at our university (mainly Lisa Owen, 'Thank You' to you, too!), we started to contact schools and immediately found that this project was rather popular. As already planned, we recruited a larger team of volunteers, in this first year from our own department, ending up with about 12 people (including Several CANDELS members, Alice Mortlock, Jamie Ownsworth, Will Hartley, myself) for the 12 school visits that we had proposed for the first year of the project. So over all, pretty small time constraints were needed from each volunteer, about 3 school visits/year. It became clear that we would be rather man- (and woman-) power limited -- we could have visited many more schools even in this first year. Without even pushing. We never really advertised the planetarium anywhere other than through direct contact and word-of-mouth from teacher to teacher. Yet the requests keep coming in and many people find us through our website.

In order to be able to start school visits in September/October, we immediately started to develop some shows that we could present to kids of different ages. We had decided to target years 4 and 9, but soon found out that schools teach astronomy in different years, so I think by now, we have visited kids of all ages, including a nursery. I think our first attempts of shows felt rather clunky, but with experience and confidence they got better and better in the end. On our first school visit to the Nottingham University Samworth Academy -- a school connected to the University of Nottingham and the only non-WP school that we visit -- two film makers made videos about us, one from the school and one sent by Brady Haran (a film maker who runs the youtube channel sixtysymbols). You can find both videos here and here.

[This is the point where I have to put something straight: When the above videos came out, MANY blogs -- just google "Inflativerse" -- posted about us. In a process where people simply copy information from other blogs, most of them stated that we had actually developed the dome and projector. We have NOT. It's a bought system, we only turned it into a cool event for schools, but even there we are by far not the first ones. St. Andrews and Edinburgh had their projects running for years, and I am sure there are even older ones than that. While we are not the oldest, I think we do have the coolest name ;-) ]

This is the Greek mythology filter. Unfortunately it is very
hard to take a picture of the normal sky field, so I can't show
one here. Image Credit: The Inflativerse Team
Over the months, standard visits developed. We would take the younger kids on a trip through the night sky and the Greek myths that are connected to the constellations (a great book to be recommended in this context is 'The Mythology of the Night Sky'), while carefully avoiding the not so child-friendly bits (the stories are over all rather gory and include a lot of stuff not quite suitable for 8 year old kids). For the older kids, we include some of the same stories, but on top of that, we include much more about physical processes. This is a short list of topics we can (and regularly did) cover: The sky at night, Constellations, how to tell a star from a planet, Ancient Greek mythology, Light pollution, Constellations, Navigation by the stars, Phases of the moon, Our Galaxy - the Milky Way, "How do I become a scientist?", Changing seasons, Temperatures of stars, star clusters, nebulae, stellar nurseries and many more. 

Our ocean current filter. Image Credit: The Inflativerse Team
But we have filters for more, e.g. ocean currents and plate tectonics, and can implement many other topics into the shows. One of my personal favourites is 'Harry Potter on the night sky' and 'Tolkiens Sky', featuring many names from Harry Potter books that are taken from constellations and stars (a surprising amount!) or the constellations and stories explained in the Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien stories (Probably something I should pick up again and work out in a bit more detail, given that I moved to Oxford and Tolkiens home-pub is 100-200 meters from my desk).

Throughout the entire process, I personally found it very positive that, while we did write down some of the shows, we never forced people to stick to exact scripts. We wanted every single presenter to be comfortable in his show and make up his own script. While this meant that we had a slightly longer learning process, it made sure that we came across as enthusiastic rather than a robot that just repeats what he's told.

In addition to our planetarium shows, we have developed some other activities that can be run either in a classroom or outside the building. One of our favourites here is a scaled version of the solar system. We use a football (a proper, 'soccer' football) as the sun and then, while talking the kids through each planet from the inside out (we show pictures on an iPad or small laptop), we walk them through the scale model of the solar system. At this scale, the Earth is a bead 2mm across at a distance of 23.5 meters, which gives the kids a rather good impression of how empty space actually is, even in a 'crowded place' like the solar system. We also own a real piece of space junk (a piece of an asteroid found in Argentina and sold on ebay) which we usually pass around in that context.

Last year, we re-organized the team, now recruiting undergrad students as well, and the project has been very successful over all. Over the last 2 years, we have visited 24 schools and several public events, amongst them 'Nottingham Light Night', 'BBC stargazing live' 2012 & 2013, University Mayfest 2012 & 2013,  with a total number of ~4000 visitors into the planetarium. We also had several Brownie groups visit the university for a planetarium visit and the dome was used for the 'brain awareness week' (They called it InflatiBrain) by a different department. They didn't project the stars, they projected the structure of the brain. But our achievements are not only of public type, we (Jamie Ownsworth) have also given a talk at the IAU in Beijing (one of the largest conferences in astronomy), so I hope we are leaving some imprint on professional astronomers, too. Maybe someone will follow our example and build up their own 'Inflativerse'. It has been a lot of fun for all of us (while at times it was rather a lot of work) and I think both the department and the community benefit massively from such a project.

Additionally, I have to mention that we personally all benefited from it, too, and I have to thank all the volunteers in this project for their great efforts and for helping us run the Inflativerse over the last 2 years. All our volunteers have done great work and I am sure their school visits and the experience gained will benefit them in their future and if it's only from being more confident to talk in front of bigger crowds. Evelyn was nominated for the 'IoP Very Early Career Physics Communicator Award' for her work and I myself have managed to secure a 3 months outreach fellowship from the university in the first year in order to start up the project and set it up it as a sustainable outreach program. Recently, all 3 of us were also told that we will receive the Vice-Chancellors Achievement Award from the University of Nottingham for the project, something, I have to say, that I feel rather proud about. Without the help from all our volunteers, I am sure non of this would have happened. More generally, outreach projects like this look very good on a CV and, as they become more and more important in our jobs, are a valuable skill when applying for jobs. So to all the astronomers and all other scientists who read this: you can see, that this kind of outreach work can and will be rewarded on some level or the other. While people always complain that outreach is 'not their job' and 'a waste of (research) time', it seems to help to keep us in a job, so everyone out there, please keep up the good work.

As I mentioned above, I have meanwhile moved away from Nottingham, so 'The Inflativerse' is not in my hands anymore, but I keep strong personal links and sometimes still wear my Inflativerse T-Shirt with pride. Oxford, where I am now, co-owns one of these domes, too, but they do not take it to schools as we did in Nottingham. Occasionally, we get classes visiting here and we use it for open days, but on a much lower level than in Nottingham. However, techniques have progressed and affordable projectors are now good enough to be used in a planetarium context. We took a look into upgrading our starlab system (an older version of the one used by The Inflativerse) to a digital projector and have actually already ordered all the parts. For ~£2000, we bought a HD projector and some optics (including a fish-eye lens) and we will soon build a digital system ourselves instead of buying the $40000 commercial versions. We have to hope a bit that this works in the end, but we are optimistic, given that we have people in the workshops that have built MUCH more complicated optical system than that, e.g. scientific instruments for telescopes. 

The ultimate goal here (besides using the more flexible system in-house) is to pre-record shows and train teachers on using the dome so that they can borrow the planetarium and run school events themselves. We have all the parts here now and will be starting on this pretty soon. When we have a working system, we will also try to distribute the plans and links to the community, maybe someone else (maybe even Nottingham) is willing to spend money on this 'low-budget' digital system and share their pre-recorded shows, hopefully building up a great database for the future. But this is my next project and should be discussed once it's running in a separate blog post.

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