Universe in the Park Brings Astronomy to Public

Aug 30, 2011

It’s not unusual to see groups of up to 100 campers and park visitors gathered around a telescope gazing at the night sky at Wisconsin state parks on late spring, summer and early fall evenings.

These budding astronomers are participants in Universe in the Park (UitP), a popular outreach program offered by the Astronomy Department. “Based on the simple idea that the best environment in which to introduce the general public to astronomy is outside under dark skies, pairs of UW graduate and undergraduate astronomy majors travel to state parks all around Wisconsin every year during the camping season to bring astronomy to the public,” says program director Eric Wilcots, astronomy professor and Associate Dean of the College of Letters and Science. “UitP is an outstanding example of the Wisconsin Idea at work.”

UitP began in 1996 through a proposal to the NASA IDEAS program. The principal investigator on the proposal and originator of the UiTP program was Karen Bjorkman, who was then an associate scientist at UW's Space Astronomy Laboratory working with the Wisconsin Ultraviolet Photo-Polarimeter Experiment (WUPPE) project, and is now a distinguished university professor of astronomy and Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Toledo (Ohio).

Fifteen years later, the program, funded by the National Science Foundation and sponsored by the Astronomy Department and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, is still incredibly successful. “In each of the last few years, at least 50 sessions, spread across most of the state parks in Wisconsin, have been held for groups of up to approximately 100 people,” says astronomy graduate student and UitP presenter Paul Sell.

Just after sunset, one student gives a 30-minute presentation—a broad overview of one or two astronomy topics—with lots of wonderful images. Presenters will sometimes discuss recent astronomical news such as the discovery of new solar systems, the demotion of Pluto, and the latest results from the Hubble Space Telescope. The talks are for audiences of all ages so that anyone from ages 5 to 99 can understand and enjoy them. 

The other student sets up a moderate aperture (8-10 inches) telescope to observe some easily-accessible astronomical objects such as the Moon, planets, globular clusters, multiple star systems and nearby galaxies following the talk. If the sky is clear, participants are given the opportunity to view whatever astronomical objects are available through the telescope. The students give detailed explanations of the objects being observed and encourage questions throughout the sessions. They also point out some interesting, easy-to-find constellations, satellite fly-overs and flares.

“This two-pronged approach of a presentation followed by observing not only shows participants amazing objects in the sky but guarantees that they leave with so much more,” says Sell. “After all, what better way to bring astronomy to the general public through an observing session than to go directly to campers who are already outdoors?,” he asks.

“The UitP program is a natural way for astronomy to reach the public,” adds graduate student Blakesley Burkhart. “The dark skies of Wisconsin’s natural reserves and parks really show the ‘wow’ factor of astronomy while educating people at the same time. I love doing the program and traveling around the state.”

UitP gained international recognition at the 2010 Communicating Astronomy with the Public conference in Cape Town, South Africa, where it was showcased as a model for park public astronomy outreach.

To find a Universe in the Park program at a state park near you, view the schedule at www.astro.wisc.edu/uitp/. The site also includes links to other astronomy topics and information about the current night sky.

Captions:

Image 1: Universe in the Park session in Governor Dodge State Park.
Image 2: One of the UitP telescopes Astronomers bring to the parks for public viewing.
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