1 March 2022

Webb Community Events: Connecting Scientists, Engineers, and the Public

Christopher Britt                                                                 Emma Marcucci
Space Telescope Science Institute                                       Space Telescope Science Institute
Yesenia Perez                                                                      Anita Dey
Space Telescope Science Institute                                       NASA Headquarters

The launch and commissioning of the James Webb Space Telescope are monumental achievements that have taken the skill and perseverance of devoted professionals across the globe to accomplish. With this new observatory, we seek to answer questions of our common origin: the beginnings of stars, planets, and galaxies themselves. Space Telescope Science Institute's (STScI’s) Office of Public Outreach and NASA have partnered to share this achievement with the public and to meet them where they are in their own exploration of the universe. We are working with communities across the country to support celebrations of Webb’s launch and first images through the Webb Community Events initiative. We want to empower all people to look up and explore with Webb.

A map of all Community Events that wished to appear on a public map.
A map of all Community Events that wished to appear on a public map. The map, with event details including location, time, and description, is hosted at jwst.nasa.gov/content/webbLaunch/events.html

Modeled after the extremely successful science engagement campaign held for the 2017 Solar Eclipse, Webb Community Events are locally organized by community partners who best know the needs of their own communities. These partners include libraries, museums, science centers, amateur astronomy clubs, Girl Scout troops, classrooms, national parks, and others. Because each community has different needs, we have worked with partner networks across NASA’s Science Activation program to provide a plethora of resources and guides on how to use each. NASA’s Universe of Learning project, led by STScI’s Office of Public Outreach, is just one of many partners in this program, who reach a variety of audiences nationwide and have all contributed enormously to the success of the initiative.

Over 600 community events were held to celebrate Webb’s launch, with events in all 50 US states and Puerto Rico. Every community host was given access to one-on-one communication with a point of contact on our multi-organization team, press and social media kits, print and virtual materials, event examples, activity guides, a slide deck written for public audiences about Webb science and launch, multiple training sessions on Webb and Webb science, and the opportunity to be matched with an astronomy subject matter expert in their region.

In total, 186 scientists and engineers across North America were successfully matched with over 250 community host sites to bring Webb science to their communities to celebrate the launch. The support from the astronomical community in supporting events near them has been critically important. Post-event evaluations have shown that event participants who have an opportunity to directly interact with a scientist or engineer report a significant increase in interest in science, as well as an understanding of the science content. Direct outreach efforts from experts help humanize science for an audience, and can more firmly establish a sense of identity as people who enjoy and follow the science. The relationships established between event hosts and local scientists and engineers can also serve as springboards to future work in their communities.

Just as the launch is only the beginning of Webb’s work, so is it only the beginning of community engagement efforts around Webb science. Planning has already begun for community events celebrating the end of commissioning and the Early Release Observations, around six months after launch, and to nurture the relationships established in these milestone events into long-lasting partnerships. Community organizations and institutions have been invited to host events of all types and sizes (in-person, virtual, or hybrid) throughout the summer and fall of this year. Sites will be supported with training sessions for hosts, virtual subject matter expert panels, event and media support materials, STEM activities and digital resources, and print materials and handouts. Keep an eye on the Webb Community Events page for a map of host sites (coming late spring) to find an event in your area. If you are interested in other astrophysics-focused outreach opportunities, you can sign up with our partner program NASA’s Universe of Learning.

Models of the James Webb Space Telescope printed and assembled for an event at the Lykens Valley Children’s Museum in Elizabethville, PA.
Models of the James Webb Space Telescope were printed and assembled for an event at the Lykens Valley Children’s Museum in Elizabethville, PA. The event included a talk by astronomer Dr. Joel Leja of Penn State University, observing with the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg, and numerous hands-on activities. Image Credit: Lykens Valley Children’s Museum.

Webb’s cutting-edge technology and anticipated ground-breaking science open up a world of STEM engagement opportunities for learners of all ages and backgrounds. The vision for the community events is to create and nurture generations of science enthusiasts, including underserved audiences, through long-term, meaningful engagement with Webb’s discoveries.