** HERE THERE BE DRAGONS -- All of these programs are still on-going! and things are changing all the time! I've done my best to describe and provide resources to the things I have put together -- but if a link breaks I might not catch it. Drop me an email! I am always happy to know about my mistakes :-p **

I believe that Astronomy is one of the most universally fascinating areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Astronomy is able to capture the imaginations of individuals, spark curiosity, and serve as the "gateway science" to all STEM fields. Thus, I think it is fundamental for astronomers to get out from behind our laptops and share our science with our communities. 

Below are descriptions of the Outreach initiatives I have been involved with, including links to the online resources, publications, and presentations of the work. If you are interested in partnering or learning more let me know!

Particularly exciting things!

The White House is hosting a Star Party on October 19th, 2015!
Dark Skies, Bright Kids! alumni are core to making this event happen! The coordinator, Meredith Drosback, is hoping to make this a nationwide event -- with like-minded organizations hosting their own local star parties across the country. It does not take much to plan a Star Party -- just a telescope (no matter how big or small!) and a good attitude. The night was chosen specifically to coincide with a Full Moon -- so even Star Parties in Urban areas will have something to look at. 


Carnegie Observatories Open House 

[Still in Progress!]  
On October 18, 2015 the Carnegie Observatories will hold its 14th annual Open House for the Pasadena community! I am reworking the entire "Kids" portion of the event. I do not like putting kids at an activity table in the corner (so to speak ...). Instead, I think we need to incorporate kid-friendly language and concepts at all of the stations throughout the open house, from the public science talks to the exhibits in our state-of-the-art instrumentation lab. I am adapting materials I developed for Dark Skies, Bright Kids! (see below) to bring families into the science conversation at the event. 
  • I am building an all-inclusive "Passport" to the event that serves as a guide for families to participate together. The Passport contains appropriate level introductions to the different parts of the open house. It has a short activity for the kid to complete at each station to earn a "Passport Stamp" that we are having custom made to match our events. Most importantly the passport has a space for kids to write down their questions! for the "Ask An Astronomer" booth. 
  • I have reworked the kids space to be a "learning space" where we dive deeper into the key concepts discussed throughout the rest of the event. I pulled out some of my favorites from my outreach bag of tricks! 
  • I am adapting graphical displays made for other contexts to have scaffolding materials to support astronomers communicating with the public or with kids that have little experience. The analogies and number are right there for them in the poster so they do not have to think so much on their feet.
Its a lot of work! but I hope to significantly raise the "family friendly" aspects of the event!

Snapshots of the Universe
A Multi-Lingual Astronomy Book

        Dark Skies, Bright Kids! (DSBK) is an outreach organization at the University of Virginia, focused on enhancing elementary level science education in underserved communities. Early in the program, DSBK volunteers encountered difficulties connecting with English as a second language (ESL) students. To meet that challenge, DSBK volunteers created story-book style art with short descriptions of astronomical objects in both Spanish and English to help communicate basic astronomy concepts to these students. Building on this initial success, our simple project has evolved into a full multi-lingual children’s book targeted at 2nd - 5th grade students. Though originally in Spanish and English, a partnership with the University of Alberta (Canada) has produced a French translation of the text, broadening the outreach potential of the book.

Do you want to know more!? Here are some of my formal presentations of the book at professional outreach conferences:

Popular Articles:
  1. Video on DSBK to Raise Money for the Book: Snapshots of Dark Skies, Bright Kids (YouTube)
  2. Brief Article on the Bad Astronomy Blog by U.Va. Alum - Phil Plait: Blog Post
  3. U.Va. Astronomer, Students Create Book on Universe for Schoolkids: UVA Press Release, NBC29

Dark Skies, Bright Kids!
Dark Skies, Bright Kids! (DSBK) 1 is an astronomy-themed outreach program at the University of Virginia targeted at underserved elementary-aged populations in public schools. Since 2009, DSBK has contributed over 14,000 volunteer contact hours toward the education of students in Central Virginia. The core of the DSBK program is an eight to ten week after school “astronomy club” that covers a set of major astronomical topics. The content is presented to students though a combination of demos that build curiosity and excitement and hands-on activities that demonstrate those scientific concepts. In addition to the club, DSBK organizes custom one-time events with schools and local informal education providers (e.g., libraries, recreation centers, and museums), participates in local and regional science festivals, and organizes the annual (and well attended) “Central Virginia Star Party” in partnership with local businesses and astronomy organizations. This vast program is operated entirely by volunteers drawn from the students, staff, and faculty affiliated with the Department of Astronomy at the University of Virginia. DSBK is funded from education components of research grants,
gifts from the community, and outreach support funds at the University. In recognition of its accomplishments, DSBK was honored as a 2012 “Program that Works” by the  Virginia Mathematics and Science Coalition, the highest award for informal education
programs partnering with the Virginia Public School system.

As of the 2013-2014 academic year, DSBK was only able to accommodate ∼25% of its requests for elementary-aged programming. Based on this over-subscription rate, we believe DSBK fills a highly desirable niche for informal science education, at least for schools in Central Virginia. After attending several professional outreach meetings, I am convinced Dark Skies, Bright Kids! is also unique in its use of real scientists in the classroom. This is critical because it shows scientists care about their communities! and it provides crucial skill development for the graduate students.  

You can see our experiences in Virginia here: Dark Skies, Bright Kids on Flickr.

Join in on the fun at our website  -- Note: the site is still down after a hack of the website in the early Summer. The group is too busy being out in the community making an impact to worry about the website. It'll get done one day! So in the mean time, keep up with us on FACEBOOK.

Here are some formal resources:

The Central Virginia Star Party:

Families Enjoy the Dark Skies of Central Virginia
The rural regions around Charlottesville, Virginia boast some of the most pristine dark skies remaining on the East Coast. These same 
regions are also home to a rich and vibrant farm culture. What could be better than combining these stunning night-vistas with hard cider? Absolutely nothing. The Central Virginia Star party has hosted as many as 500 individuals from the Central Virginia community and engaged them with fun, hands on activities and the night sky. We are hosted by Albemarle Ciderworks, joined by many of our wonderful local food trucks, and partner with a number of regional amateur astronomy organizations. The event is a fantastic celebration of the night sky and the community.

To get a sense for the event, browse our photos on Flickr: 2013

    As a leader (or "alpha") in DSBK, I led many aspects of the initialization of the event in 2011, which was localized to a single elementary school. I helped the event grow into an annual fixture in the Charlottesville community. Specifically, I designed the flyers and invitations (from scratch!), wrote grants, adapted our lesson plans, did a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and (of course) volunteered at the event.  

Learn more at the event websites -- 201420132012 

Central Virginia Governor's School Mentoring Partnership:

    Graduate students in the U.Va. Department of Astronomy are leading a scientific collaboration and mentoring partnership with the Central Virginia Governor's School, in which high school students engage in publishable astronomical research projects. Access to resources from the U.Va. Astronomy Department, as well as the Center for Chemistry in the Universe and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, results in a diverse range of projects, exploring exciting topics such as black holes, star formation, and pre-biotic molecules in deep space.
    In addition to making a contribution to astrophysical knowledge, this program builds a strong evidence based approach to learning in young minds and provides mentors to upcoming scientists. Both mentors and students become proficient with scientific tools, learn to participate effectively within a collaboration, and rise to the challenge of presenting research to a variety of audiences. Off-site mentoring is accomplished with a suite of free online collaboration tools. Teaching innovation is required for the mentors to bring the students to the technical level required for the projects, and throughout the process, the students learn the invaluable lessons of scientific adaptation, creativity, and risk-taking.

I initiated the program in 2009, and managed (somehow!) to get other graduate students to mentor students. The program just keeps going by the amazing leaderships of UVA Astronomy graduate students -- long after I resigned from formal leadership in 2013. 

I am *really* beyond proud that one of my first high school students (see image below) was awarded the prestigious Jefferson Graduate Fellowship in 2015 to study Astronomy at the University of Virginia!! -- making the whole program come to a full circle. 

  1. A write up of the program after its first year by Shannon Beasley in the NCSSMST Journal (PDF, local)

Rachael Beaton,
Sep 20, 2015, 4:39 PM