Astronomy Department Hosts Public Stargazing, Space Discovery Presentations

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

Beginning Feb. 4, Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory will open to the public every Wednesday night, rain or shine, for presentations by faculty and students on the latest space-related discoveries, as well as a chance for everyone to view the sky through a telescope, weather permitting.

The program will start at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. Presentations are intended to be accessible to visitors of all ages, although aimed primarily at high school level and above.

The series is an expansion on the “observatory nights” Wesleyan has historically hosted only on clear nights—which, in practice, occurred only a few times per semester.

“By making them rain or shine, we hope to draw a larger and more consistent audience,” said Assistant Professor of Astronomy Meredith Hughes. “We’re also aiming to provide deeper engagement for the community by offering, for the first time, half-hour interactive presentations on space news and astronomy research by students and faculty.”

To prepare astronomy students to engage with the public, Hughes taught an astronomical pedagogy seminar during the fall semester.

“This involved giving students the background they need to aim their presentations appropriately and make them engaging and accessible to a wide audience. In the second half of the class they wrote presentations, practiced them, and got feedback from me and their classmates,” said Hughes.

This project, including stipends for the student presenters, is funded through the broader impacts component of Hughes’ grant from the National Science Foundation.

The Astronomy Department is also working to improve two-way communication with the public. This includes a new email list, through which the department will advertise public events and will solicit feedback from the public on what’s working well and what’s not, as well as what types of events can be added to better serve the community. Sign up for the email list here.

Future plans include a series of monthly kids’ nights at the observatory, and summer activities.

The Van Vleck Observatory will celebrate its centennial in 2016. Events highlighting a century of astronomy in central Connecticut will take place throughout the 2015-16 academic year, and will include a series of public talks, exhibitions, and observation with the newly restored 20 inch Alvan Clark refracting telescope. Further details will be made available on the Astronomy Department website.