By/par Michael De Robertis and Richard Bloch1
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2016)
Astronomers at York University occupy the north hallway of the third floor of the Petrie Science and Engineering Building (named, like the CASCA Prize Lecture, after the noted Canadian astronomer, Robert M. Petrie). Not only does our floor include classrooms used by students from a variety of science and non-science courses, but it also contains the main entrance to the York Observatory that houses 40 cm and 60 cm telescopes in two separate domes, and which regularly hosts public viewing sessions throughout the year, serving thousands of people.
It is in this setting that astronomers have recently established two education and public outreach (EPO) initiatives that are the subject of this update; a series of posters down the main astronomy hallway, and video content for our new Astronomy Education Station (AES) situated in the NW corner of our hallway.
Though the Department of Physics and Astronomy has seven astronomers (though only six at the time these initiatives took shape), our research interests span the four major areas of modern astronomy: Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmology.
The first of our EPO initiatives involved the creation of posters concentrated on these areas. (In fact, we divided each of the first three areas in two because of the richness of these topics.) Individual posters focused on the following areas (facilitated by York faculty members):
- Solar System (John Moores; Planetary Scientist with the Lassonde School of Engineering)
- Extra-solar Systems (Paul Delaney)
- Star Life (birth and mid-life) (Michael De Robertis)
- Star Death (Norbert Bartel)
- Galaxies and Clusters (Marshall McCall)
- Active Galactic Nuclei (Patrick Hall)
- Cosmology (Matthew Johnson)
The faculty coordinator Michael De Robertis, and senior undergraduate Richard Bloch, solicited feedback from each faculty member as to the most important information (with supporting graphics) that might appear in each poster. While most of the graphics used in the posters are non-proprietary, Richard produced the remaining graphics using Adobe Photoshop. After extensive vetting of the text and design by faculty involved, seven posters were produced along with an index poster. Each poster was printed in 0.9 m x 1.2 m format and mounted sequentially along the hallway covered by a thin sheet of Plexiglas. The title of each poster was given its own colour. Key words in one poster that are more fully described in another were printed with the colour of the other poster’s title for easier reference. An image of each of the seven posters is included at the end of this article. Departments and institutions are free to use any of the text. Reproduction of the images themselves can be used with attribution.
Since their mounting in 2015, the posters have drawn the attention of visitors and students in the hallway.
Posters, while interesting, are a passive medium. We therefore initiated a plan to supplement more active and engaging astronomical content to students and visitors of our hallway. This led to the introduction of the Astronomy Education Station.
The AES consists of a 60-inch Sharp SmartTV driven by a modest PC. The PC is housed in a small locked closet near the TV, a holdover from the days when overhead and slide projectors used in nearby classrooms necessitated such storage space. To prevent theft of the TV, we purchased an inexpensive locking system. Potential damage to the screen was also a concern, given that the facility operates continuously without monitoring (in addition to being in proximity to two student pubs!). We were able to get a local vendor to produce an inexpensive, thin, durable plastic cover that slid onto the TV screen and that could be secured in place. The protective screen is unfortunately slightly more reflective than the TV screen itself.
We originally had the idea of using a secure, tablet-like device mounted on the wall or on a modest pedestal so that viewers could interactively select content. While this may be an option for the future, we decided to loop existing short non-proprietary (e.g., NASA) videos as well as videos produced “in house.”
Since the AES is within earshot of not only classrooms but faculty offices, it became immediately apparent that we had to forego sound in favour of captioning. (There is still a sound option that can be used during Observatory tours after hours, but the facility is normally muted.) Some of the NASA videos we chose were already captioned. Those which weren’t captioned, as well as content created in-house, had to be captioned. Captioning does not present a serious challenge; free captioning like that provided by YouTube, while not very efficient, can be edited to produce a perfect script without much effort, particularly since experts suggest videos of this sort should not be more than 2-3 minutes or so in duration, in order to better retain audience attention.
The first generation of videos for our AES involved short NASA videos on subjects from the International Space Station, to the Moon, Planetary formation, Galaxy formation, and the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. These were supplemented by student-produced videos on the general themes of our posters, as well as highlights of astronomy; i.e., a tour of the universe from planets through to large-scale structure using images from the HST.
We are currently producing second generation videos, including answers to the “top ten questions” undergraduate students have about astronomy. The ten most frequently asked questions by undergraduates were compiled based on surveys of the York University Astronomy Club and students working at the York Observatoy. Answers to the questions were suggested by faculty members based on their area(s) of expertise. Videos 1-2 minutes in length of faculty members answering these questions, supplemented by relevant background images, are being recorded and captioned for display on the AES. It is important that the production quality of such content appear as professional as possible, since students are particularly discerning when it comes to video content at this time. (While the videos are recorded with sound, they are muted for obvious reasons and are captioned for the AES.)
As with our posters, we would be willing to share our in-house content with other institutions. Moreover, we would be interested in learning of such content produced by other groups across Canada and the USA.
1Richard is currently a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario.