Academic Outreach at Penn State (Aug 2007)
The Penn State Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics is a dynamic place with active research programs in most observational and theoretical areas of astronomy. I am Christopher Palma, a full-time faculty member with responsibility for managing the wide variety of outreach programs that we offer to bring the wonders of our research to the community. That's me on the left side of the photo.
The faculty and students at Penn State are dedicated to outreach. For many of our programs we get dozens of volunteers to participate, even though Astronomy is one of the smallest departments at this large university. Our signature annual outreach event is called "AstroFest", which is held concurrently with a street festival called the "Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts" (usually referred to as ArtsFest). During four nights in July, as many as 50 faculty, students, and our families and friends present a program that includes planetarium shows, night sky observing, demos like make-a-comet and water rockets, astronomy arts & crafts for kids, a Q&A station with prizes, 3D shows with our AstroWall system, presentations on exciting astronomy topics, and tours of our Solar System scale model and our cosmic timeline. Photos from the 2007 event are on-line.
During ArtsFest, we bring out our solar telescopes and set up a station where visitors to campus can view the Sun before strolling through the rest of the outdoor festival. The Sun serves as a great advertisement for the wonder of astronomy, and many of the solar observers return in the evening for more observing of the night sky. Princess Leia and R2-D2 even stopped by for a view of the Sun! (OK, maybe grad student Kim Herrmann and a modified trash can, but could you tell the difference if I hadn't told you?)
We have expanded our outreach program to include as many audiences as we can reach. We visit K-12 classes and host field trips and summer science camps for K-12 students on campus; we taught an astronomy Elderhostel program for folks over the age of 55; and we have programs every summer for middle school and high school science teachers. In every case we present the discoveries being made every day by astronomers, but we also always try to get our guests to the telescope (solar or nighttime) at least briefly during every program. The feedback we get is always overwhelmingly positive.
I really enjoy being able to devote my full time efforts into astronomy outreach. It is really nice that people find what we do so fascinating that they are willing to take an hour, a day, or sometimes even a week out of their schedule to visit and learn about astronomy at Penn State in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR ACTIVITIES: If you use our SOHO images or movies, provide outreach and programs in the area of solar study, and would like to be considered for our Outreach Spotlight section, write to steele.hill[at]gsfc.nasa.gov with a brief overview of your efforts. If we think you'd make a good candidate, we will contact you.