|ASTC Dimensions: September/October 2006
Fathoming the Unfathomable
Eyes on the Skies: Reconnecting Audiences with Astronomy
By Dennis Schatz
Ask any group of 7-year-olds what their favorite science topic is, and most will tell you "dinosaurs." Pressed to say why, they explain it is because dinosaurs are big and they are dead.
When I ask the same question of older children and adults, the answer is typically "astronomy." Why? Because, like dinosaurs, the stars that fill the night sky or appear in our sophisticated telescopes are unfathomably large and remote.
Of course, other subjects of current science research—nanotechnology, the genome—are also difficult to see and to understand. What makes astronomy different is the rich connection it has to many cultures and its capacity to appeal to everyone—from the casual observer of the night sky to the serious amateur who scans the heavens for a comet to the armchair astronomer grappling with Brian Greene's ideas on string theory in The Elegant Universe.
I see this wonder with astronomy each time I join with people to
- view meteor showers with the unaided eye while camping outside on a warm summer night
- share stories about constellations from different traditions around the world
- find the moons of Jupiter with a pair of binoculars or see Saturn through a backyard telescope
- marvel at the colors and structures of a stellar birthplace in the latest Hubble Telescope image
- learn that the images of galaxies are time machines, telling us about the nature of the space-time continuum billions of years ago.
We keenly examined online exhibits created by other museums and constantly experimented with new technologies and techniquessome successful, some noton our own site.
How can informal learning centers capitalize on this intrinsic fascination with the universe that surrounds us? Once there were relatively few places to get information about astronomy. The local planetarium had "the lock" on multimedia experiences; now anyone can have a personal planetarium—some, like Stellarium (http://stellarium.sourceforge.net/), at no cost—on his or her laptop. Sky and Telescope, aimed primarily at the amateur enthusiast, used to be the only astronomy magazine; today Astronomy magazine and dozens of others cater to the public's interest in astronomy. Local PBS stations used to show occasional programs on astronomy; now, space science is a regular feature on the Discovery Channel, the Discovery's Science Channel, and even the History Channel. And then there's the Internet....
In Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions (AltaMira, 2006), John Falk and Beverly Sheppard identify three elements that need to be considered in today's marketplace. One is the increased competition described above; the others are consumer behavior and product customization.
The essence of these elements is evident in today's coffee culture. Customers no longer settle for plain coffee; they want to be able to get an "extra hot, double tall, nonfat, wet cappuccino with sugar-free vanilla." I believe science center and planetarium customers want the same kind of customization when they visit our institutions. What can we give them that they can't see on their 50-inch plasma TVs or find on the World Wide Web? What resource do we have that is unique to science centers?
The answer is people—knowledgeable staff who can interact comfortably with the public and build on visitors' natural fascination with the stars to make connections to astronomy and space science. Settings where these human "connectors" can be effective include
- interactive planetarium shows in which the presenter draws on the audience's existing knowledge to customize the content.
- interactive web sites that provide an opportunity to ask and respond to inquiries.
- astronomy exhibits with activity carts that allow staff members to develop ideas with visitors one-on-one.
It's true that this kind of staffing is expensive. For astronomy programs, the solution lies in the kinds of relationships we develop with other astronomy enthusiasts.
- The amateur astronomers in your community are models of how to be a science buff without being a professional scientist or educator. Invite them to be part of your programs.
- Solar System Ambassadors are volunteers trained by NASA to explain current space science projects and discoveries. Ask one to give a presentation at your museum.
- No one conveys the excitement of astronomical research better than the researcher. Provide opportunities for practicing scientists to interact with your audiences.
Yes, museum visitors are interested in astronomy, but in today's market, the demand for program customization and personalization is also a given. The challenge is to find creative and cost-effective ways to meet that demand.
Dennis Schatz is vice president for education at the Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Washington, and president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.