Outreach: Seven Reasons to Volunteer

Original article appears in GuideStar November, 2016.

Seven Reasons to Volunteer to Perform Outreach with the Houston Astronomical Society
By Joe Khalaf

If you’ve been to any of the Houston Astronomical Society’s meetings at the University of Houston, you’ve probably heard me recapping outreach efforts that H.A.S. members have recently participated in, or letting everyone know of other upcoming events.  Yes, H.A.S. is very active in outreach, but why is that?  Well, look no further than our society’s mission statement:

"Foster the science and art of astronomy through programs that serve our membership and the community."

Yes, performing astronomy outreach in our community is a core mission of our club, and it’s something we can all participate in!

So why do outreach?  I’ve listed 7 reasons below that I’ve found to be true for most people who are regularly involved in our outreach events, and some may even be true for you, too!

1. You will have an excuse to observe when you can’t make it to the club’s dark site
If you’re like me, you’ll find that sometimes it’s easier to acquire a new piece of astronomy gear than it is to get to the dark site to use it on a frequent basis.  For those times when you can’t make it out to Columbus, visiting a school or library where we’re holding a star party is a great opportunity to get some observing time in without having to travel very far.  Many of our outreach events are held within the city limits or in the immediate suburbs, so it won’t take you long to get to a place where you can use that new eyepiece or mount and run it through its paces before getting to use it in Columbus.

2.  Outreach will make you (yes YOU) a better astronomer
Most of us spend lots of time reading books, perusing the pages of Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines, or otherwise browsing astronomy-related websites to quench our thirst for knowledge about space.  While that’s a great way to spend a cloudy day indoors, nothing beats the practical experience of looking through the eyepiece.  Getting a chance to look at even “common” night-sky objects will give you an opportunity learn more about things like “seeing” and “transparency” that make no sense to us when we’re first starting out in the hobby, and over time, you begin to spot subtle differences in things like Jupiter’s bands, Saturn’s rings, or the moon’s characteristics from phase-to-phase.  The simple fact is that the more you observe – even during outreach – the better an astronomer you’ll become.

3.  You will get to learn from others
Many of the H.A.S. members who do outreach are among some of our most experienced visual observers in the club.  I found that when I participated in my first few outreach events, I was setting up near folks who have probably forgotten more about astronomy than I had ever known.  So, as I pointed my telescope towards Saturn and said something like, “this is Saturn and it’s approximately 800 million miles away from us right now” to the guests looking through the eyepiece, I would listen in on what they were saying next to me about some exotic NGC object I’d never heard of.  As soon as I had a chance, I’d head over and ask to take a look at whatever my neighbor was showing others.  So, not only was it a learning experience for the attendees, it was an education for me, as well.  I probably would have never known about the E.T. cluster or the Blue Snowball Nebula had I not attended an outreach event.

4.  You can use the time at the outreach event to work on your Astronomical League observing challenges
This goes hand-in-hand with becoming a better astronomer, and I’ll explain why:  I still consider myself a novice, but now, I’m more of a “novice with a purpose.”  It used to be that I’d take my telescope out, aim it at a few things I could recognize in the night sky, then I’d hit a proverbial wall after about 15 minutes.  I wouldn’t know where to point my telescope next, and I was frustrated because observing was never as fun as I had hoped it would be!

What I found is that having a set of objectives when observing, and actually planning my observing sessions, has made the hobby much more enjoyable for me.  Now, rather than merely pointing my telescope at a few planets, maybe the Orion nebula, then calling it a night, I’ll have a list of things I need to observe to achieve an AL list award.  Sure, it’s slow going sometimes, but now I know what I’m looking for as opposed to waiting for major astronomical events or for a planet to become an early-evening target.

So what does this have to do with outreach?  Simple.  If you’re working on your AL Messier List (or any other AL list, for that matter,) going to an outreach star party gives you a chance to work on these observing challenges.  After our star party at Camp CLIFF in October, I was able to spend a little bit of time and observe 5 of the binocular Messier objects I’ve been wanting to observe before they sank away into the southwestern horizon, not to reappear until next spring.  I wouldn’t have done this unless I was at this outreach star party.

5.  There is an Astronomical League award for outreach
We’ve all heard of the AL awards for bagging Messiers and double stars with your telescope or binoculars, but did you know that there is an award for outreach, too?  All you need to do is participate in 5 outreach events, each totaling 2 hours or more, and then you have qualified for an AL award.  There are also additional awards at 50 and 100 hours of outreach.  If you’re looking to capture that first certificate or pin from the Astronomical League, this is one of the easiest (and most social) ones you can get.  You can find more details at https://www.astroleague.org/al/obsclubs/outreach/outreach.html.  

6.  You can test out that new telescope or eyepiece you’ve considered buying
I’ll be honest – the first time I ever used a Dobsonian telescope was at an outreach event several years ago.  One of the club members brought an 8” Dob out with them, and I got to try finding objects in the night sky with it.  I liked it, but not as much as the Scmidt-Cassegrains I’ve cut my teeth on over the last 15 years or so (now, give me a 25” f/4 Dob, and I’ll sing a different tune!)  We routinely see a wide array of telescopes and other astro-equipment at our outreach star parties, and it’ a great chance to test out that eyepiece, telescope, or pair of binoculars that you’ve considered buying.  I have yet to meet someone in the astronomy community who wasn’t willing to answer a question or let me use their equipment to try it out, and outreach events are a great place to do this, as well.

7.  You’ll get a lot back in sharing your time, skill, and talents with others
If you’ve never done outreach before, you’ll find it a very fulfilling activity that gives you as much in return, if not more so, than what you put into it.  Most of the time, all you need to do is attend an outreach event, point your telescope at an object the sky, and let visitors take a peek.  Sometimes, the most excited visitors are the ones who look at things we deem routine – the moon, Saturn, or M42.  There’s nothing like hearing a child or adult yell out in wonder “WOW!” as they see the rings of Saturn for the first time or to look amazed when you tell them just how long the light from the Andromeda Galaxy has been traveling before reaching their eyes.  Who knows, it may be you who inspires that kid looking through your telescope to pursue astronomy as a career.

So how can you get involved?  Easy.  Just show up!  You don’t even need to bring a telescope, if you don’t want to.  Some of our members show up to outreach star parties armed with no telescopes or binoculars, but are more than willing to engage with our audiences to explain some of the things we’re looking at and answer questions from the crowd.  A remark I often hear from members is, “I’d like to do outreach, but I am just getting started in astronomy and I’m not sure I’ll know what to do.”  If this sounds like you, have no fear.  Chances are, you know more than you’re giving yourself credit for, and you certainly will know more than the visitors you’re interacting with. I’ve even seen some people become more confident public speakers, and that is, to some degree, due to their participation in astronomy outreach.

So what are you waiting for?  Check out the club’s calendar at https://www.astronomyhouston.org/events and find an event you’d like to attend.  Once you’ve done this, email me at outreach(at)astronomyhouston.org (replace (at) with the @ symbol) and let me know that you’ll be joining us.  Bring whatever equipment you’re comfortable using with the public, and don’t forget your enthusiasm – it’s far more important than an encyclopedic knowledge of astronomy when it comes to outreach.  Before you know it, you’ll be an outreach pro and an ambassador for our club and hobby in no time at all.

See you at the next star party.  Until then, clear skies!

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