Friday, April 24, 2015

Stargazer Nights at the Library

This spring at my library, we're exploring both microcosms and macrocosms as part of the newest rotation of the BOOMbox, our flexible STEAM space. Under the heading Big and Small, the space is filled with microscopes, telescopes, and all manner of activities to explore these various cosmos.

My coworker Amy had the outstanding idea to move some of the formal programming for this spring outside of the physical library space by offering Stargazer Nights on the Village Green adjacent to the library. All the better to take advantage of the Cometron telescopes the library purchased, Amy reasoned. And to maximize the potential audience for these sessions, Amy asked me if I'd be willing to host one session per month on the night of my usual weekly evening shift while she offered sessions on hers. I was excited to help!

So far we've hosted four of our six total Stargazer Nights. While these events appear on our online and print calendars and BOOMbox flyers, they're drop-in events, with no registration required. Despite the fact that we've had 2/4 overcast evenings, we've had several dozen participants each time. And I consider this next bit exciting: through informal conversations with the folks who come to participate, we've found out that about 80% of participants had not come to the library specifically for the event; rather, they serendipitously discovered it was happening on their way into or out of the library. Visibility, here, was a huge factor--folks could see the telescopes pointing upward as they went about their library business, and natural curiosity and wonder induced them to stop and look up, too.

Regardless of the visibility on any given evening, each Stargazer Night introduced families and individuals across a wide age spectrum to basic telescope skills and etiquette. We talked about using the finderscope to help to point the telescope at the desired object to view; how the mirrors of the telescope cause what we see through the eyepiece to be inverted; and how to focus the telescope. Amy and I have also discovered an excellent way to help young stargazers use the telescope without bumping it and thus changing the view: we ask kids to put their hands in their pockets before leaning over to look in the eyepiece. Simple!

We talked about simple astronomical identification skills such as finding the Big Dipper; using the Big Dipper to locate the North Star; and how to tell a star from a planet from a man-made satellite. We also talked visible constellations, including Orion (we had a great view in March) and Leo (in April). We saw the moon in several different phases over the course of the four Stargazer Nights, and so we had conversations about the phases of the moon and their names as well.

The cream of the crop, though, truly was looking through our Cometron telescope to see the moon in sharper relief as well as a few planets. We've been able to see Venus (both with the naked eye and through telescopes), but Jupiter really takes the cake. Jupiter is plenty visible without a telescope, but we were also to see a whopping 5 of Jupiter's moons when we viewed the planet through the telescope. 5! So many participants' minds were blown at being able to see such distant celestial bodies.

While we have two more Stargazer Nights coming up in May, I must say we've already had some outstanding outcomes. On the most basic level, we've had lots of participants of all ages expressing thanks for being able to even do this sort of thing at the library. We're relatively near Chicago, with its Adler Planetarium, but even so everyone we talked to was thrilled to have this type of opportunity in Skokie. Parents commented that they particularly appreciated being able to expose their children to this type of technology. One family who stumbled upon the event and joined had never even seen a telescope before--what an amazing opportunity for the library to have a significant impact on their scientific knowledge.

The programs thus far have engaged a wide range of ages and knowledge levels. We had the aforementioned novices, but we also have had longtime astronomy hobbyists who enjoyed a) participating in something they care deeply about with others, and b) having the opportunity to share their knowledge by answering some questions when Amy and I were helping other folks.

The majority of participants fell into some middle ground--they knew a bit about stargazing and/or astronomy, but hadn't been reminded to look up in quite some time. Stargazer Nights resparked their interest. And that's what we ultimately want of any BOOMbox activity: to spur an interest or motivation to engage in a topic beyond the library program itself. To that end, we made sure that anyone who was interested in continuing to stargaze on their own was able to take home the monthly Evening Sky Map we had printed from

If we can inspire behavior that leads to further exploration? I consider that a stellar program.

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