School Star Parties
some tips from a veteran blacktop astronomer
by Jane Houston Jones
Mon, 21 Feb 2000
Plan your star party near first quarter moon, if possible. The moon will be nice and bright early in the evening during this phase. Young students will have a satisfying experience without having to stay up late. Local newspapers often have a moon phase schedule. A call to an astronomy club, science center or many online sources will get you the lunar schedule.
Contact your local science center, astronomy club or local college for amateur astronomers with telescope to share with your school and students. Many amateur astronomers love to come to schools with their telescopes. Give plenty of advance lead time when requesting amateur astronomer volunteers - several months ahead is best. They are in much demand by schools, and volunteer their precious spare time. Plan to have one or two telescopes for a school group less than 30 or so. It is nice to have a variety of telescopes to show different views. And be sure to instruct your students not to touch the telescopes unless the owner gives permission. Some telescopes are rough and tough and user friendly, and like to be touched. Some will be pushed out of alignment or damaged by the simplest touch. If in doubt, always ask first!
Find out what is up in the sky. The moon and planets guarantee a great viewing night, even if a light cloud cover is present. Light pollution from most school yard lights won't bother views of the moon and planets too much. Don't expect to see many deep sky objects from a schoolyard, however. Double stars are great targets from bright school sites, and so are a few large clusters or nebulae. Most galaxies are too small and dim for young eyes and bright lights.
Plan your events during the time of the year when daylight savings is not in effect. The most successful star parties occur when it is dark early in the evening. Ask the school maintenance crew about turning off some brighter nearby outside lights (and sometimes sprinkler systems) on the night of your event.
Allow the astronomers to drive in to the blacktop area to unload their equipment if at all possible. They will not be very enthusiastic if they have to cart delicate equipment a hundred yards and back. They will swoon with pleasure if they are allowed to leave their cars nearby their telescopes.
Prepare a backup plan. Rain or clouds can ruin a star party, but if you are well prepared, it can still be a fun night. Have a slide presentation ready. Ask the astronomers or science teachers if they have one. Or have a movie or astronomy video ready to play. Have a second backup date for the star party prepared in advance "just in case" of rain, and communicate clearly plan in case of clouds or rain.
A one page description of the night sky that month is a great giveaway handout. So are bookmarks.
Some school star parties I have organized have a check-in sheet so the students get extra credit for attending the star party.
For major events, consider inviting a reporter from the local newspaper. Or inviting the local community.
Sometimes the PTA or a group of parents brings cookies, popcorn and hot cider. Depending on the size, this is a nice addition to the events.
Be sure to invite parents and other children in the family to your school star party. The more the merrier! Everyone will enjoy the night sky.
Instruct parents to leave the family dogs at home. Dogs seem to think that telescopes are fire hydrants!
Invite students to bring their own binoculars or telescopes. The astronomers will be happy to help your students align their scopes.
Last but not least, even if astronomy is not your best subject, learn one simple fact about the night sky to share with your students that night. I like short "sound bites". Statements that are easy to say and easy to comprehend. It is wonderful to share one astro fact with your students. Whether it is a statement about what causes a lunar eclipse; distance, size and numbers of moons around a bright and shiny planet; or the age of that brilliant red star in the shoulder of Orion, prepare something to say that your students can remember and repeat. You'll be the shining star of your own star party!
Jane Houston Jones
Some important links I like a lot:
- Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Project Astro Program http://www.aspsky.org/
- Hitchhikers Guide to the Moon - my friend Akkana Peck's great lunar website
- Shallow Sky (about the Solar System) also by Akkana Peck
- The Nine Planets - my friend, Bill Arnett's great planetary website
- A Day in the Life of the Moon - My own simple guide to the moon
Jane Houston Jones is an amateur astronomer and telescope mirror maker. She volunteers with several Northern California schools as part of The Astronomical Society of the Pacific's (ASP's) Project Astro program. She is also the president of the 25 astronomy club strong Astronomical Association of Northern California. http://aanc-astronomy.org.
--Jane Houston Jones
San Rafael, CA