The American Astronomical Society (AAS), in partnership with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP), members of the Center for Astronomy Education (CAE), and other organizations active in science education and public outreach (EPO), is creating a new program for young astronomers just starting their careers. The project involves a series of professional-development workshops and a community of practice designed to help improve participants’ communication skills and effectiveness in doing outreach to students and the public. Called Astronomy Ambassadors, this new program will provide mentoring and training experiences for new members of our profession, from advanced undergraduates to postdocs, providing access to resources and a network of contacts within the astronomy EPO community.
By learning how to implement effective education and outreach strategies, Astronomy Ambassadors will become better teachers, better presenters at meetings, and better representatives of our science to the public and to government. And because young astronomers are a more diverse group than older ones who currently do the majority of outreach, they will help the astronomical community present a more multicultural and gender-balanced face to the public and enable members of underserved groups to see themselves as scientists.
Since “random acts of EPO” have been shown to have no lasting effect, the emphasis of the Astronomy Ambassadors program will be on helping participants set up ongoing, sustainable partnerships with schools or other organizations. Wherever in their community they choose to do their outreach, Astronomy Ambassadors will be provided with a range of effective activities, templates, and resources. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we will start by using materials that the ASP, CAE, and other science organizations have already developed for their outreach programs. The library of outreach opportunities and materials will grow with time and the number of Ambassadors.
Putting a Face on Science
The Astronomy Ambassadors project was the brainchild of then-AAS President (now Past-President) Debra M. Elmegreen. Among other motivations, she was alarmed at the results of Research!America’s 2009 “Your Congress–Your Health” poll, in which 65% of Americans said they couldn’t name a living scientist and another 18% tried but failed, either naming dead scientists or nonscientists. In other words, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans can name a living scientist; undoubtedly, the fraction of our citizens who know a scientist personally must be far smaller. The AAS Council agreed with Elmegreen that we should take action to address this problem.
The AAS mission statement includes two key statements that explains why the Society is investing in communication and outreach training:
- The Society, through its members, trains, mentors and supports the next generation of astronomers. The Society supports and promotes increased participation of historically underrepresented groups in astronomy.
- The Society assists its members to develop their skills in the fields of education and public outreach at all levels. The Society promotes broad interest in astronomy, which enhances science literacy and leads many to careers in science and engineering.
One of our goals is to put a young, enthusiastic, and diverse face on the science of astronomy. Accordingly, the primary candidates for Astronomy Ambassadors training are early-career AAS members:
- advanced undergraduates,
- graduate students, and
- new PhD's.
We hope to include Ambassadors of diverse gender, racial, and cultural backgrounds; from institutions large and small and urban and rural; from throughout North America; and to encourage Ambassadors to seek out venues with diverse audiences.
In partnership with the AAS, the ASP has a goal of 25 to 30 participants for the first Astronomy Ambassadors workshop to be held at the 221st AAS meeting in Long Beach, California, in January 2013. Applications are due 24 October 2012.
Whom Will Ambassadors Serve?
The opportunities for outreach are many, both in and out of the classroom. Adults and family groups flock to community centers, science museums, planetariums, nature centers, national and regional parks, fairs and festivals, science-institution open houses, etc., where they can be engaged in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) activities. And students can be found not only in formal classrooms, but also in after-school programs and summer camps. The tools emphasized in the workshop will be most appropriate for the general public and middle- and high-school students.
A Community of Practice
A new section on our website will be dedicated to tools for, and communication among, Astronomy Ambassadors. Participants will become part of an online community that can exchange ideas, resources, and experiences through their own dedicated forum. The site will be populated with a menu of opportunities for doing outreach in Ambassadors’ own communities as well as numerous age- and venue-appropriate hands-on resources.
As the program grows — as new cohorts of Ambassadors “graduate” from training and get involved with outreach — there will be an increasing number of participants in the online forums and more opportunities for sharing of successes and challenges and for group problem solving.
Workshop at AAS 221 in Long Beach
The workshop content will balance skill building with a deeper understanding of outreach. The website will have general tips for finding existing programs and materials for astronomy and science outreach, but the workshop will help participants learn how to identify specific opportunities in their own communities.
Workshop sessions also will assist young scientists in gaining a better understanding of how people learn and what makes outreach to nonscientists effective. By building on participants’ existing communication skills and natural enthusiasm for science, workshop activities will build confidence in the participants for doing public outreach.
Since the Long Beach workshop is a pilot, evaluation will be limited to the impact of the training and its tools on the participants, with additional information gathered to document the outreach that they do. Participants will log their activities, and those logs, along with follow-up interviews, will help gauge the impact of the Astronomy Ambassadors’ outreach efforts. We’ll also implement a set of pre- and post-workshop surveys, observations of the workshop, lunchtime focus groups with participants, and later telephone interviews with a subset of initial participants, all as part of a formative evaluation plan. These efforts will help refine our planning for future workshops.
How Can You Become Involved?
If you’re part of our target audience to become an Astronomy Ambassador, please fill out our online application by 24 October 2012. The AAS expects to provide successful applicants with modest travel stipends to help defray the cost of coming to Long Beach two days early to attend the workshop.
If you’re an experienced EPO professional and are interested in contributing outreach materials or techniques that you have developed and that could be featured on the Astronomy Ambassadors website and/or our workshops, please contact Suzy Gurton, ASP Education Manager.
For general inquiries about Astronomy Ambassadors, contact Rick Fienberg, AAS Education & Outreach Coordinator.
- 221st AAS meeting, January 2013, Long Beach, California
- Afterschool Alliance
- Astronomical Society of the Pacific EPO programs
- Center for Astronomy Education (CAE)
- NASA science EPO programs
- NOAO science education & public outreach
- NSF education resources
- Portal to the Public
- Research!America’s “Your Congress–Your Health” poll
- Society of Physics Students (SPS) Science Outreach Catalyst Kits (SOCKs)
- WorldWide Telescope Ambassadors