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), has launched a series of professional-development workshops and a community of practice designed to help improve early-career astronomers' ability to effectively communicate with students and the public. Called Astronomy Ambassadors, the program provides mentoring and training experiences for young astronomers, from advanced undergraduates to new faculty; it also provides access to resources and a network of contacts within the astronomy EPO community.
By learning how to implement effective education and outreach strategies, AAS 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 those 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 AAS Astronomy Ambassadors program will be on helping participants set up ongoing, sustainable partnerships with schools or other organizations. Ambassadors are provided with a large library of outreach activities and materials that are suitable for a range of venues and audiences and that will grow with time. We call it the MOOSE, or Menu of Outreach Opportunities for Science Education. For much of the MOOSE we are using resources developed by organizations such as the ASP, CAE, and the Pacific Science Center for other outreach programs, though some resources have been created specifically for this program.
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. That is, the poll showed that 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 strive 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.
The first Astronomy Ambassadors workshop was held at the 221st meeting of the AAS in January 2013 and served 30 young astronomers chosen from more than 75 applicants. Incorporating feedback from workshop participants and lessons learned from the reports they've been submitting upon conducting their own outreach events, we are now planning the second workshop to be held 4-5 January 2014 at the 223rd AAS meeting in Washington, DC.
The 1st Class of Astronomy Ambassadors
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: mainly graduate students and first-time post docs, but also some advanced undergraduates as well as new faculty members.
We strive to include ambassadors of both genders, from a variety of cultural backgrounds, from institutions large and small and urban and rural, and to encourage ambassadors to seek out venues with diverse audiences for their outreach activities. Here's a demographic summary of the first class of AAS Astronomy Ambassadors:
- Caucasian 77%
- Asian 17%
- Hispanic/Latino 3%
- African American 3%
- Female 67%
- Male 33%
- Graduate Students 77%
- New Faculty 10%
- Postdocs 3%
- Undergraduate Seniors 3%
- New Staff 3%
- Faculty (3rd Year) 3%
In the first six months after the Long Beach workshop, 18 ambassadors logged a combined 64 EPO events. The four most active ambassadors have, among them, logged 38 events, i.e., 59% of the total. Eight more ambassadors have logged at least two events, while six have logged one event.
Whom Are Ambassadors Serving?
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 afterschool programs and summer camps. The tools emphasized in the workshop are most appropriate for the general public and middle- and high-school students.
A Community of Practice
Using infrastructure already developed for the ASP's Astronomy from the Ground Up (AFGU) program, we've built a forum dedicated to tools for, and communication among, Astronomy Ambassadors. Participants are part of an online community that regularly exchanges ideas, resources, and experiences, not only with each other but also with their workshop trainers.
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 forum and more opportunities for sharing of successes and challenges and for group problem solving.
Eventually, we expect to move the forum to the AAS website, where we'll be able to take advantage of the AAS's new communications infrastructure.
2nd Workshop at AAS 223 in Washington, DC
The Astronomy Ambassadors workshop content balances skill-building with a deeper understanding of outreach. It offers general tips for finding existing programs and materials for astronomy and science outreach and helps participants learn how to identify specific opportunities in their own communities.
Workshop sessions also 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 build confidence in the participants for doing public outreach.
Our second Astronomy Ambassadors workshop will be offered on the weekend preceding the 223rd AAS meeting in Washington, DC, in January 2014. The AAS will provide successful applicants with modest travel stipends to help defray the cost of coming to DC two days early to attend the workshop. (Applications for this workshop are now closed.)
In addition to the event logs that Astronomy Ambassadors report for their outreach activities, we conducted pre- and post-workshop surveys, observations of the workshop, lunchtime focus groups with participants, and later telephone interviews with a subset of participants, all as part of a formative evaluation plan. These efforts are helping to refine our planning for future workshops.
Results from the post-workshop survey are encouraging. More than 90% of respondents rated the inaugural workshop as good or excellent. Most also thought that the content of the workshop was just what they were hoping for, except that they would have liked to see even more time devoted to learning about various questioning strategies, to discussing fears and obstacles in carrying out outreach events, and to identifying sources of funding and other types of support for their outreach efforts. Participants with less prior experience in EPO found the workshop most valuable, so we plan to select participants with less outreach experience in the future.
How Can You Become Involved?
If you’re part of our target audience to become an Astronomy Ambassador, please watch this space for announcements of future workshops.
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 Gina Brissenden, AAS Education & Outreach Coordinator.
- 223rd AAS meeting, January 2014, Washington, DC
- 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