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Outreach toys

It's the Easter holidays again, and while I'm a bit far from Jodrell to do Ask An Astronomer any more, that doesn't mean I'm not doing stuff. Late last year I was contacted by Belinda over at Scitech about doing some astronomy during the school holidays. They've got a couple of science clubs for kids: Scitrekkers and Double Helix (a national club run by CSIRO), and there are events for members during each holiday. This Easter there is a lot going on, not just at Scitech but at the education centre in Kings Park, Gingin Observatory, and the Light and Sound DIscovery Centre in Fremantle, too. The amount of science outreach going on around here is really pretty impressive.

My bit (Wonders of the Universe!) is on Tuesday in the CSIRO Lab at Scitech. I'm going to do a tour of the Universe in an hour (I've got a very fast spaceship - I promise we'll be back in time for lunch!). My old outreach kit is looking a bit the worse for wear though after a couple of years of abuse so, when I forgot to bring it home from work with me on Thursday, I figured it was about time I made some new stuff. I had planned on a weekend of no astronomy... ah well, I just can't do it!

One thing I've always found goes down well with kids is a model of the solar system. A while ago I made a solar system on a string when I ran a two-hour session for a group of Brownies in Christchurch. We stretched the solar system out across the hall we were using and the kids were all amazed at how much space there was between planets. The adults were surprised too, actually. After many more uses though, the "planets" (bits of electrical tape) are starting to fall off and the ends of the rope are looking rather battered. So, I got a new piece of rope yesterday and used some bright yellow bricky's line to whip it at the right places for the Sun and the planets. No Pluto this time either (that tells you how old the last one was).

Solar system ona string, mk2
Solar system on a string, mark two! CREDIT: Megan
I also went up to the Australian Geographic shop in the city yesterday. A dangerous thing, I could spend a lot of money in there, they've got some very cool toys. I got one of the build-your-own solar system models - a simple orrery with little plastic snap-together planets and a set of paints - and spent yesterday evening assembling and painting it. It might be meant for kids, but I found it rather relaxing. I modified it a bit though. The planets are meant to just snap together, but I added some twine to the inside and glued them together so that I can hang them from the rope, and they (hopefully) don't fall apart when handled by kids! They're good little kits, but they need a bit more yellow paint, I ran out! Anyway, the solar system on a string - mark two is complete. We'll see how well it survives on Tuesday... I love outreach - this should be fun!

Posted by Megan on Sunday 12th Apr 2009 (03:06 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

100 Hours - post mortem

So, the 100 Hours of Astronomy seems to have been a big sucess all round. The "Around the World in 80 Telescopes" webcast seems to have gone pretty well, although I didn't see any of it as I was too busy out and about playing with scopes on the ground. Around Perth there were at least fifteen seperate events held around the city over eleven days. I say at least, because there were probably events that I never heard about!

Scitech were responsible for eight of these events. First, they ran three nights at Lamonts in the Swan Valley with an aboriginal astronomy theme - an evening of dinner with stories from a Noongar elder. Sadly, I missed all three nights due to the Murchison trip and then the evening with Waylen Bay Venturers at Curtin the day we got back, but it sounds like it was pretty good. Then came the Observing on the Oval evening at Halls Head primary school on the Tuesday, Space Pirates at Little Creatures on the Thursday, City Beach on the Friday, the Primary Science Conference on Saturday, and Busselton on Sunday. In total these events involved people and telescopes from Scitech, Curtin, AGWA, Gingin, BTOW, Perth Observatory and CSIRO, and reached approximately 1,700 people.

Perth Observatory ran public observing events up in Kings Park on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They started at 12pm each day with solar observing, and ran through until 10pm with a 12-inch Meade, showing people the Moon and Saturn. There were both Observatory staff and volunteers there, keeping a tally of how many people they spoke to in total, and how many people had never looked through a telescope before. The afternoon and evening I was there, we must have seen well over one hundred people, not bad for a Sunday.

Gingin Observatory also hosted a couple of events: "Saturn Starkers", a talk and observing session with astronomer Peter Birch on Saturday night, then a BYO telescope class on Sunday for those who already have a scope but don't know how to use it. The Astronomy Society of WA also ran an event on Saturday - an observing evening at Gooseberry Hill primary school.

All in all, a superb effort all round, and not bad at all given the size of the population!

So, what's next? It's the Easter holidays so the schools are out for two weeks, and the Double Helix club at Scitech has a whole load of events planned. I'm doing one of these, a tour of the Universe (in just an hour!) next week. Then there's Triple-S, National Science Week, Open Day, another Triple-S, River Ranges Astronomy Camp, and of course AstroFest. As much as I love Jodrell, I don't think I'd be doing anywhere near this amount of stuff if I'd stayed...

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 08th Apr 2009 (14:07 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

100 Hours - part five

Every night since Thursday (whie I've been galavanting off with the Scitech crew), astronomers and volunteers from Perth Observatory have been manning telescopes in Kings Park. They've been setting up at midday and running through until 10pm each night. Since I was at a loose end this evening (Scitech have gone to Busselton overnight but I have to be at work in the morning), I went along to their event at about 2pm and ended up staying until about half nine.

They had two scopes out, a little refractor tracking the Sun and projecting the image onto a card screen, and a 12-inch set up for the evening. The Sun is quite featureless at the moment, so there wasn't much to see, but we had a steady stream of visitors all afternoon, many of whom said they would come back after dark to look through the 12-inch. It was good fun, and I even met a Jodcast listener!

Observing the Sun on Sunday 5th April, Kings ParkObserving on Sunday 5th April at Perth Observatorys star<br /><br />party in Kings Park
Observing at Perth Observatory's star party in Kings Park, 5th April 2009. Left: observing the Sun. Right: after dark. CREDIT: Megan

As it went dark, the 12-inch got set up and pointed at the Moon as it rose over the trees. The refractor got dismantled and an 8-inch appeared to go on the now spare mount. For most of the evening we had the Moon through the 8-inch and Saturn through the 12-inch. I spent the evening either manning the 12-inch or wandering around talking to random people. I had some great conversations with various kids who knew a surprising amount, but had a few wacky ideas. There were even a few Scouts there!

Five star parties in six days, phew! It's been a lot of fun, but I'm absolutely shattered!

Posted by Megan on Sunday 05th Apr 2009 (15:02 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

100 Hours - part four

Last night was a different sort of event. It wasn't a public star party, and it wasn't guerrila astronomy either. I had a morning of doing something other than astronomy (shocking, I know), then at lunchtime Pete from Scitech picked me up in the bright red van and we headed up to The Vines in the Swan Valley. Pete and Dempsey were running a session at the Primary Science Conference which is being held up there this weekend, and Rob Hollow from the ATNF was also giving a presentation. The plan was to take up the scopes and do a viewing session for the teachers when it went dark. This meant that between the end of the sessions and dinner, we had nothing to do except clean the eyepieces, and sit in the bar!

The original plan was to set up the scopes somewhere away from floodlights and where the spinklers had been turned off. Of course what happened was that no one working that night actually knew how to turn off the sprinklers so, rather than risk getting the telescopes soaked, we decided to set up just outside the building and put up with the lights instead. Dinner was good, the veggie option was actually tasty, but we skipped dessert and went to set up. Two Dobs and the CPC were about all that would fit where we were, but it was plenty. I'm not sure that all 70 teachers were there, but a lot of them came out to have a look. Rob and I manned the Dobs, pointing at the Jewel Box and the Moon respectively, and Pete did Saturn. By the time we finished packing up it was gone 10.30pm, I hadn't noticed the time until then and I was suprised how late it was - it's true, time flies when you're having fun!

It's been a long two weeks, and I am quite tired now, but I'm happier and more relaxed than I've been for quite a while. It's not quite over yet though. Scitech are off to Busselton tonight for their last 100 Hours star party. I'd really have liked to have gone too, but they're staying overnight and I have a meeting on Monday morning. Instead, I'm going to head up to Kings Park and see the guys from Perth Observatory who have been observing up there every evening since Thursday.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 05th Apr 2009 (01:56 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

100 Hours - part three

By Friday morning I was glad of the coffee machine at work. Normally I drink tea, but I was starting to yawn before I even arrived on Friday. Over the last two star parties I'd done so much talking that I felt like my voice was starting to go. Still, there was another one set for Friday and I wasn't going to miss it!

At half four a crowd of us piled in cars and headed over to the physics building on campus. We filled up the cars with as many telescopes as we could find and headed off to City Beach for star party number three. There were six of us from Curtin with our three telescopes: the 5-inch Meade (which I have taken a strong dislike to recently), the 12-inch Meade, and the 8-inch Dob which we actually gave to the GUC in Geraldton last year but had borrowed to take to Mullewa last week and not returned yet. We eventually found the right place (Scitech's big red outreach van is hard to miss!) and unloaded everything.

On the deck at the back of the building, overlooking the ocean, there were lots and lots of telecopes of various descriptions. In total there were 16 scopes belonging to various groups including Scitech, Curtin, AGWA and BTOW. It looked very impressive.

Scopes at sunset, City Beach
Scopes at sunset, City Beach, 3rd April 2009 CREDIT: Megan


At 7pm, earlier than expected, the public began arriving and we were off. Our telescopes were running, but the 5-inch was displaying it's normal stubborness and refused to align itself properly. It's asking for some percussive maintenance... Aidan, Claire, Bruce and the guys from the Curtin astronomy club were great. They showed people all sorts of fun stuff and seemed to be having a good time. I went for a look at some of the other telescopes that were around and got talking to one of the guys from AGWA  who had another 16-inch Dob - he'd just ordered a collimator but it hadn't arrived yet, so I borrowed Scitech's collimator and showed him how to use it.

There were quite a few Scouts around, including several from my Troop, which was great. One of the Scouts from another Troop even brought me his book to sign so he could earn his astronomer badge! The estimates for how many people were there in total ranged between 450 and 500 which is really quite impressive. The area wasn't very big, so it did get quite crowded. I spent a lot of the evening wandering through the crowd with a stack of AstronomyWA planispheres handing them out and showing people how to use them.  I think I got through more than 100 in the space of about an hour!

Scopes at City Beach
Busy scopes at City Beach, 3rd April 2009 CREDIT: Megan

Another great evening of public outreach, I'll be sad when this week is over! Still, we've got National Science Week in August, I'm putting together an astronomy camp for October, and then there's AstroFest in November which should be huge.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 05th Apr 2009 (01:35 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

100 Hours - part two

After Tuesday's sucess, we had an evening off from astronomy. Thursday night was a sort of star party, but it was definitely more along the lines of "guerilla" astronomy than the other events we've done this week. After work I jumped on the 98 and met up with the Scitech crew at Little Creatures Brewery down in Fremantle. It's not just a brewery, they have a big bar where you can sample the beer, have a pizza and watch the brewing process. We had to lug all the boxes through the bar and out the back door to get to our spot and there wasn't a huge amount of space, so we only took two of the 16-inch Dobs and the motorised Celestron.

While we were setting up there were some puzzled looks from various people so we kept explaining about the whole International Year of Astronomy / 400 years since Galileo looked at the sky with a telescope / 100 Hours of Astronomy project. This was exactly the idea - take telescopes out to people who might not normally go to star parties, take the telescopes to them instead. There was more to it than that though, we had a theme: "Space Pirates!" (Because pirates use telescopes, too.) There were big hats, big dress earings, eyepatches, plasic swords, and even a crab on someones shoulder. The kids had a great time - we actually ended up with our own troop of four-foot security pirates who loved running around with the swords!

Scopes at sunset, City Beach
Space Pirates at Little Creatures, 2nd April 2009 CREDIT: Megan


It wasn't the best place for telescopes though. We had the back of the builing to the north which blocked the Moon for the first part of the evening, and we had to keep moving the other Dob as Saturn disappeared behind it. There were floodlights on the next building south which spilled over to where we were, and we were on the harbour where there were lots of other lights. Still, it didn't matter really as we were only showing off some bright stuff. Most of the evening we had Saturn, the Orion nebula and the Jewel Box, then we switched from the Jewel Box to the Moon as it came around the building.

After we packed up and de-pirated, we went back in for pizza and beer to round off the evening. The pear and blue cheese pizza sounded very strange, but was actually really good. For some reason, the crab joined us for dinner and nearly got eaten (it wasn't the same crab that got squashed by the meteorite, in case you're wondering). All in all, it was a very silly, but very entertaining evening.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 05th Apr 2009 (00:52 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

The state of science

A very scary statistic reported by the BBC:

"Finally, once again, it has to be reported that the amazing percentage of 59% of higher level candidates think the current in a wire is the movement of positive electrons"

That's not amazing, that's worrying. These are students taking the higher level science exams! It seems that the new qualifications watchdog for England (creatively named Ofqual) has some serious concerns with both general science and physics GCSE exams, and I can see why. They do go on to clarify though:

"...there are such things as positive electrons, but they are not on the specification for science or additional science and, being antimatter, most certainly do not flow in a wire."


Posted by Megan on Thursday 02nd Apr 2009 (05:39 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

100 Hours - part one

Last night was my first event in the 100 Hours of Astronomy week. OK, so it's not officially 100 Hours yet, but hey. Organised by Scitech and AstronomyWA, the event included people and equipment from Scitech, Perth Observatory, AGWA and Curtin. Held down at Halls Head primary school in Mandurah, the event was attended by more than 200 people including pupils and teachers from the school and their familes. They looked after us very well, providing food and drinks, and even covering the building lights around the oval with red gels!

Between us we had more than 10 telescopes, including Scitech's collection of very nice 16-inch Dobs. I got a lift down in the van with Pete and Dempsey from Scitech and, after getting a bit lost (the instructions were wrong and none of us had a street directory!), we arrived at the school just before sunset and unloaded the van. We set up the scopes, aligned the finderscopes and the optics with the laser collimator, and nervously watched the high cloud rolling in over the ocean. It had been clear when we left Perth! When people appeared on the oval at half seven it was still cloudy so we spent a frustrating half hour chasing clear patches across the sky. At about 8pm the sky suddenly cleared and finally we had the whole sky to play with. I was looking after one of the Dobs and managed to show the Moon, Saturn, the Orion nebula, omega Cen, the Jewel Box, and the Tarantula, as well as a few random bits of fuzz in the Milky Way. It was great fun!

So that's the first event. Tomorrow I'm off with the same crowd to do a 100 Hours public observing evening in Fremantle. This one has a pirate theme...

Incidentally, Scitech planned a great April Fool's Day stunt this morning: they staged a meteorite landing on Cottesloe beach! Fantastic!

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 01st Apr 2009 (13:13 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Back to the Murchison

Last year Steven and I, along with two colleagues from CSIRO, visited the remote community at Pia Wadjarri in the Murchison as part of an outreach project called Wildflowers in the Sky. Last week, we headed back up there for a different project. This time, it was an IYA project, part of the Indiginous Astronomy package. The grand plan is to create an exhibition of aboriginal artwork inspired by astronomy that will be displayed in Geraldton, Perth and hopefully around other cities in Australia, and the purpose of this trip was a cultural exchange between the artists from Marra Aboriginal Corporation and astronomers.

We took up some telescopes, binoculars and various other bits and pieces so we could show them some of the telescopic sights in the southern sky. I'd been really looking forward to the trip, not just for the dark skies, but I was hoping to learn some of the stories they have about the sky. I knew a couple of aboriginal stories from reading books when I was in Alice Springs a couple of years ago, but each group has it's own stories and they are all different. We left Perth on Tuesday afternoon and headed to Geraldton with a very full four wheel drive. We arrived in Geraldton five hours later and had dinner with a colleague there. The sky is not bad in Geraldton, it's a lot better than the sky in Perth, although as a port town with a population of over 25,000 people, it's still quite light polluted. On Wednesday after a morning of meetings in Geraldton, we had lunch in town and then headed off to Mullewa after stocking up with some supplies.

Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Mullewa
Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Mullewa CREDIT: Megan
Mullewa is a small town in the wheat growing region of WA, but it has some interesting buildings. The star party on the oval was fun, although it was a manic evening. Before we started we had a minor mishap with the 5-inch - the end of the power cable was missing, so we had no way to power it. The trouble is, without power, it's not much use at all, so we went through the large collection of power cables we had with us but all but one of the adapters had different connectors. The one that fitted was from Jeff's laptop power supply, which he let us butcher in the name of outreach. It ran at too high a voltage though, so I did a quick bit of emergency field surgery and spliced the power cables together. It looked a bit dodgy, but it did the job! The kids were brilliant. This was my second experience of aboriginal kids, and they are great fun. They did get a bit over-enthusiastic though, and I spent an hour or so cleaning all the finger prints off the optics when we got to Boolardy the next day. The three of us were kept busy with the telescopes and questions all evening, it was brilliant, but it was a nice relief when we got packed up and got back to the hotel (just in time to get in a round before the bar closed). I tried my new camera out on the sky for the first time while we were packing up and was suprised by the results. It's not bad at all given that it's not an SLR and it wasn't actually that expensive. It does exposures up to 8 seconds, and a single frame shows a lot of stars. I'm impressed.

Thursday was a really long day. We left Mullewa after breakfast and got to Boolardy before lunchtime (no breakdowns this time!). From Pindar, you drive two hours or so on a dirt road going north. Most of the land is really flat and covered by low scrub, so any small rises let you see for miles. Last time I was there it was the end of the wildflower season and the wreath flowers were dying off, this time there were no flowers of any description. After lunch, and the film crew interviewing Steven, we all headed off in convoy to the MRO. We all climbed up the breakaway and looked out at the landscape. One of the artists was born at Boolardy so this was his country, and several of the others were from the general area. Then we headed over to the MWA to have a look at one of the tiles and talk to the crew who were hard at work on the beamformers.

The view from the breakawaySteven Tingay explains the MWA to the artists from Marra
Left: Looking at the view from the breakaway. Right: Steven Tingay explains the MWA to the artists from Marra with the Message Stick film crew looking on CREDIT: Megan

We headed back to Boolardy station later in the afternoon. The artists started work on some sketches before dinner (which was superb, Carolyn is a great cook). The sketches were really good and it was really interesting watching the artists work, the exhibition should be brilliant. It was a busy night up at the station as there was the bus full of artists, the three of us astronomers, the three film crew, plus an MWA expedition there at the same time, so quite a few of us ended up sleeping out in swags or sleeping bags as there aren't nearly enough beds for everyone at the homestead! After dinner and some observing through the scopes, we sat round a fire and looked at the sky. The artists told us some of their stories, and Steven told them some of the Greek legends. It was really special, and even better once the film crew turned off their lights! The artists showed us the emu in the Milky Way and it was so obvious once you knew where to look. Amazing.

Sunset at BoolardyStory telling around the camp fire
Left: Sunset at Boolardy. Right: Story telling around the camp fire. CREDIT: Megan

After the artists went to bed, a few of us stayed up for a while. I took heaps of photos with both the digital camera and my Granddad's old film SLR, and we had a play with the 8-inch Dob (although tiredness + beer don't make for very good alignment skills). Predictably, I was the last one up. I stayed by the fire (it kept away the mozzies) and carried on taking photos for quite a while just enjoying the peace and quiet. Eventually I packed up the cameras, threw sand on the remains of the fire, and chucked my sleeping bag out on the bit of grass by the cottage. I found it hard to sleep though, as the view was still stunning. As the night wore on and the easterly winds picked up, the quality of the sky got worse. The easterlies come off the desert and bring lots of dust with them, making the horizon fuzzy. Still, lying on the grass looking south I had a great view and didn't want to go to sleep!

I did eventually drop off, and woke as it was getting light. The sky was very light, but I could still see the Southern Cross and the pointers on the opposite side of the sky to when it had gone dark. Back home I'd never sleep out without some sort of shelter as I'd be convinced it would rain! It was really nice to not have that worry. I didn't get up straight away, just watched as the stars winked out. Then other people started to stir, so I got up. We packed up fairly quickly and were on the road back to Pindar by 8am. It was a bit wierd coming back to Perth again. It was a great trip and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to be part of it.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 01st Apr 2009 (11:24 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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