6378 The Role of Amateur Astronomers in the Public Engagement with Astronomy

Friday, February 17, 2012: 10:00 AM
Room 214 (VCC West Building)
Martin Storksdieck , U.S. National Research Council, Washington, DC
Traditional education and public outreach by amateur astronomers is dominated by “star parties,” which are public night sky or solar viewing events in which amateur astronomers allow the public (or school children) to observe astronomical objects through telescopes and interpret for them “the wonders of the heavens.” Amateur astronomers are engaged in these events mostly to share their passion, and to educate and excite the public about astronomy. Much of this education and public outreach is conducted through amateur astronomy clubs. We present evidence from a large online survey and an interview-based study of members from nine amateur astronomy clubs that suggests that EPO by amateur astronomers is only a small component of the value they provide in engaging the public with astronomy. The ethnographic and large-scale survey research on amateur astronomers and their club culture, conducted by the Institute for Learning Innovation in collaboration with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, revealed that, organized in local clubs or acting on their own, these hobbyists not only provide public education to the public and to schoolchildren alike. Through their associations and clubs they add to civic society by creating institutions in which science-minded laypeople can link with one another and mutually reinforce their passions for science; through their citizen science engagement they support research in a variety of formats and settings, from helping identify and classify galaxies to taking part in dark-sky surveys; and through the pursuit of their passion they form a cadre of highly scientific literate citizens, if mostly in the area of their choice, who can engage in a broader public discourse about issues that extend beyond their hobby.  For instance, star parties introduce many to an environment that is quickly vanishing from view and that few pay much attention to, i.e., the night sky. Based to this realization, a growing number of amateur astronomers become active advocates for preserving night sky viewing by educating the public about light pollution and energy conservation. The growing identity of amateur astronomers as “environmental educators” also manifests itself in increasing cooperation between amateur astronomy clubs and local, state and national parks who are inviting star parties to diversify their offerings of environmental education programs. Taken together, the research findings support a view of amateur hobbyist as a component of public engagement with science that is as much under-appreciated as it is diverse.
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