Archived — Organizing a star party

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The hands-on universe

I have long found that many students are excited by space science. I have recently discovered the Hands-On Universe, a very exciting resource for young astronomers, thanks to a friend at Industry Canada's St. John's office.

The Hands-On Universe allows students from around the world to request observations from an automated 30" telescope, to select and download images from an archive of more than 1500 images, and to learn the math and science involved in professional astronomy. The big appeal of this project is that it allows me to give students a chance to do some real leading-edge science work - the program puts kids in the shoes of professional astronomers.

The program was created by the American National Science Foundation and Department of Energy. There are currently efforts under way in this country to encourage more Canadian participation in the program. To learn more about the Hands-On Universe, look it up on the World Wide Web.

David Keefe
Menihek Integrated High School
Labrador City, Newfoundland and Labrador

Although he gets great satisfaction out of teaching students who go on to careers in science, David Keefe believes that one of the most important contributions he can make as a teacher is to introduce science to students who will leave the official world of science behind when they graduate. He wants every student in his class to realize that there is a place for them in science, even if it is only as a pastime.

In his years of teaching, Mr. Keefe has enthusiastically organized extra-curricular activities such as astronomy and rocketry clubs. He is proud to say that these clubs have added a little enlightenment to students ranging from really exceptional learners to those who absorbed very little science outside of what they picked up in his clubs.

Mr. Keefe has organized clubs around subjects that he is passionate about, believing that his passion will communicate itself to students. He began with an astronomy club and that began with a star party.

How to get students to reach for the stars

We live in a world where people rarely look up into the night sky. For centuries before us, though, that night sky was a source of wonder and awe to humans. It can still have that effect on today's high school students.

The purpose of a star party is to get students out and looking up. For every star party you have, there will be some participants who will embark on a life-long interest in astronomy. Others will not be so powerfully affected, but they will remember; years later they will tell a child, "Look up there; that is the pole star. Let me show you how you can always find it."

To organize a party, I build interest by talking it up in my classes. I also make up some posters to place around the school telling students to show up and BYOB (Bring Your Own Binoculars).

Besides bringing themselves and possibly some binoculars, the students don't have to do anything else to prepare. They do not have to have very good quality binoculars either. Serious star gazers like to use more powerful binoculars (10 * 50 at a minimum) than what most people have in their homes (usually anywhere from 6 * 50 to 8 * 40). Less powerful binoculars are just fine to start with, however. Anything that has a lens wider in diameter than the human eye will increase light-gathering ability.

Those of us who live in small communities have a big advantage over people who live in big cities when it comes to stargazing. The bright lights of a city produce a lot of "light pollution" that blocks out the ability to see heavenly bodies. It is best to get outside of town if you can. But even in the centre of town you will be able to see some things if you find a place where there is no light shining in your eyes.

To prepare for the event, I usually organize a few activities. If the moon is going to be out that night, I will have people try to spot some of the more visible surface features. I will generally try to introduce people to some new constellations besides the Big and Little dippers - perhaps Orion, Cassiopeia and the Andromeda nebula.

I try to keep the structured activities to a minimum so that everyone has lots of time just to look. To help people navigate their way around the sky I provide them with photocopies of a simple star map. Most astronomy magazines regularly publish good ones.

Almost any night will produce some surprises, ranging from shooting stars to, if you are really lucky, the aurora borealis. One of the most dependable treats is spotting satellites. In the hours just after the sun goes down, it is at the right angle to shine brightly on earth-orbiting satellites. These look just like stars only they move, generally crossing the sky in one or two minutes. Most move from north to south or vice versa. Some satellites twinkle because they are tumbling in space.

Just seeing the night sky and any surprises that we are lucky enough to catch produces what I call the "Wow Factor." It is a sense of wonderment and excitement in people, which I take advantage of to slip a little bit of science into the discussion - not enough to scare anybody, but just enough to firmly establish the link between the wonder and the science.

Some students will want to do more than wonder. They will want to find out much more about the night sky, and that is how the astronomy club comes in. There is a wide variety of books and magazines that will help you organize and maintain a club for these keen students.

In many ways, the astronomy club is the easiest part because that is where you learn together. You and the faithful members become partners, all looking for and sharing information. Astronomy is one of those things whereby the more you see, the more you want to know. It has ever-increasing returns.

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