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Programs bring the wonders of the Universe to people of all ages|
By Deborah A. Benedetti
Wearing a sandwich board while walking around the University Park campus and through the streets of State College, Pa., might not be every students idea of fun, but for Penn State astronomy and astrophysics majors, this old-fashioned way of advertising helped attract 1,650 people of all ages to AstroFest 1999, according to Jane Rigby, student coordinator of the event.|
Visitors to the four-day AstroFest outreach program were treated to a wide variety of informational and interactive events. Penn State faculty, students and staff members in the Eberly College of Science Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics gave guided tours of the solar system, spectroscopy demonstrations, planetarium shows and lectures. In addition, there was an art exhibit, a movie about the Apollo Moon missions and opportunities to view planets and stars through telescopes atop Davey Laboratory.
Dr. Jane C. Charlton, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics, is a strong supporter of the departments public outreach programs.
A number of our astronomers, students and faculty commented that AstroFest reminded them once again why they love to do astronomy, Charlton said. Space is one of the places that we can search for answers about the purpose of our own lives. It is also a place of majestic beauty to rival any on Earth, and our appreciation of that can be amplified when we see someone who is viewing it for the first time. Fundamentally, I think that the reason we want to share astronomy with the community is analogous to the reason that an artist exhibits paintings or that a musician performs in public.
Charlton added, These outreach efforts are also a way to showcase our own department within the University community. We might encourage students to take astronomy classes and encourage young people to pursue careers in science. We want people at the University and in the community to know that Penn State is one of the leading research institutions in astronomy and astrophysics and that it is an excellent place to learn about astronomy at any level.
Charlton and Rigby coordinated AstroFest. Rigby is a senior astronomy and astrophysics and physics major and Schreyer Honors Scholar. Among the volunteers were Rachel Kuzio, a junior astronomy and astrophysics major and Schreyer Honors Scholar, who coordinated the observing program, and Nahks TrEhnl, senior astronomy and astrophysics and art major and Schreyer Honors Scholar, who exhibited his astronomy-themed artwork during the event.
Penn State faculty members lectured during the program, including Dr. James A. Pawelczyk, assistant professor of physiology and kinesiology, who spoke on Biology in Space; Dr. Gordon P. Garmire, Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, who presented a lecture on The Invisible (X-ray) Universe; Dr. Alex Wolszczan, Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, who talked about his research and discovery of Extrasolar Planets; Dr. Daniel Weedman, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, who discussed Highlights from Hubble; and Dr. Christopher Churchill, research associate, who spoke about Life in the Universe.
The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Penn State Astronomy Club jointly sponsored this first AstroFest outreach program with funding from the Eberly College of Science, the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the University student activity fund.
The goals were to promote public understanding and enjoyment of astronomy, to showcase astronomically themed art, to get kids excited about science, to showcase the astronomical research at Penn State and to provide a fun, family activity at night during the Arts Festival, Rigby said.
She added that the Penn State volunteers had a great time talking about what we do to interested people and showing off the department and the night sky. To help deliver this outreach program, Rigby and Charlton called on undergraduate and graduate students and faculty and staff members in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, as well as family members.
A similar astronomy outreach program, AstroNight, was held in September in conjunction with Parents Weekend. More than 400 people attended, according to Karen Knierman, senior astronomy and astrophysics major and Schreyer Honors Scholar, who coordinated the event with Charlton. Activities included opportunities to view sunspots through a telescope during the day and an evening program of lectures, a planetarium show and stargazing on the roof of Davey Lab. Penn State faculty and staff members, students, college alumni and family members served as hosts for the event.
Throughout the year, graduate students in astronomy and astrophysics present outreach programs for school children, Rigby said. The students present planetarium shows and give tours of the solar system and help the children make astrolabes and model comets and planets. Michael Weinstein, a graduate student in astronomy and astrophysics, directs the departments overall outreach programs, including the programs for school children. In addition, every clear Friday night, members of the Penn State Astronomy Club host a public stargazing event on the roof of Davey Lab.
The Eberly College of Science also sponsors other public outreach programs.
Since 1995, the college has presented annual Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science. Barbara K. Kennedy, director of the colleges public information office, chairs the Planning Committee for the series, which is comprised of from six to eight consecutive weekly lectures aimed at a general audience. The Saturday morning lecture series is funded by Pfizer. Attendance has ranged from 60 during the first year to more than 330 this year. The lectures are audio- and videotaped and made available at cost to participants who request them, Kennedy noted. The lectures also have been featured in a special section of the publication Research/Penn State, which was distributed to high school students throughout Pennsylvania in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium at Penn State.
Members of the Planning Committee for the 2000 lectures were Kennedy and faculty members Wolfgang Ernst, Frank Pugh, Simon Gilroy, Mark Handcock, Pablo Laguna, Karl Mueller and Howie Weiss.
Lectures on the Frontiers of Science during previous years have covered the themes of the Origin and Evolution of the Universe, the Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth and Elsewhere, On Becoming Human: Our Evolutionary History, the Human Brain and the Human Mind, and How Things Work in Science and Technology. The 2000 lectures series focused on the theme of Astrobiology: Looking for Life in the Universe. For more information about the lectures, visit the Web site at www.science.psu.edu/alert/Frontiers-Index2000.html.
Another college lecture series is funded by Ronald M. and Susan J. Friedman. The Friedman Outreach Lecture Series is held annually. This years theme is X-ray Astronomy. The last of five lectures in the series is planned for July as part of AstroFest 2000.
Dr. Norman Freed, associate dean in the Eberly College of Science, said, Through public outreach programs such as these, the college reaches out to the community, sharing the research and expertise of its faculty and students to enhance the quality of life for people of all ages. These programs help make science accessible and understandable to the public and may also inspire the next generation of scientists.