This is the second annual survey of RASC Centres about their public observing events and pertains to events held in 2018. The survey has been streamlined from last year to more clearly focus on public observing events rather than outreach in general or members-only observing, but still retaining links to both. Now, the survey only contains 14 short questions broken down as:
- Q1 RASC Centre profile;
- Q2-Q6 Public observing offerings in that Centre;
- Q7-Q11 Infrastructure at public observing events
- Q12-14 What worked in 2018 or what’s planned for 2019
For last year’s survey, I attempted to track down the public observing representative for each of the RASC Centres, and emailed them to invite them to participate. For this year’s survey, I used the old email list, our National Representative shared the survey invite with the National Committee members, and we made links with the Youth Coordinator whose duties also link to to public observing, youth outreach, and learning events.
Q1. Which RASC Centre do you represent?
All possible Centres were listed as simple click boxes, and 14 Centres responded including:
Ottawa, Prince George, Mississauga (x2), Montreal, Regina, Niagara, New Brunswick, Edmonton, Hamilton, Windsor, Belleville, Toronto, Okanagan and Calgary.
This was one more than last year, but what was surprising to me was that there was little consistency from last year to this year – eight of the Centres responded in both years, but five of last year’s Centres didn’t respond this year, and an additional six did. Between the two years, 19 Centres have provided information on their public observing events. In addition to decent coverage over the two years, responses in both years represent a good mix of large and small Centres. While not 100% comprehensive, it is a fairly large representative sample.
Q2. What types of public observing does your Centre offer?
- 14 responses
- No public observing offered [0 = 0%]
- Special public observing events (such as for an eclipse) [11 = 78.6%]
- Add-on public observing (such as with Centre meetings, lectures, etc.) [5 = 35.7%]
- Pre-scheduled regular public observing (such as at an observatory or more than four times a year) [14 = 100%]
- Pre-scheduled members-only observing nights [1 = 7.1%]
- Astro day, sidewalk astro throughout the year, Public star parties, school and service group visits, etc [1 = 7.1%]
- At schools and youth clubs after a talk [1 = 7.1%]
As expected, most are doing special events (such as for an eclipse) and some add on observing to monthly Centre meetings. Last year’s report was not quite as definitive about having pre-scheduled / pre-announced regular public observing events, but is the area that most interests me as the coordinator for such events in Ottawa. We do public events for the non-snow months, and in 2018 that was April to November; traditionally we have done May to October.
Q3. How many times a year does your Centre offer public observing?
- 13 responses
- No public observing [0 = 0%]
- 1 to 3 times a year [0 = 0%]
- 4 to 6 times a year [0 = 0%]
- 7 to 9 times a year [4 = 30.7%]
- 10 to 12 times a year [3 = 23.1%]
With the streamlined survey this year, this result was much more revealing. While 7 of the Centres could fit within the question’s bounds (up to 12 times a year or approximately once per month), the other six Centres surpass that total. Four average 20-25 per year (~2 per month), one does every weekend that the weather permits plus special events, and one has so many it is difficult to total them up (monthly solar observing, night observing with a local science organization, regular events at one observatory when there’s no snow, regular events at a second observatory, public star parties, and a larger public star party), but over 50.
Cross-referencing some of the data behind the scenes in the individual responses, it is clear that most that surpass 10 times per year are able to do so, in part, due to access to a permanent observatory with the ability to grant public access. By contrast, in Ottawa we do monthly public observing at one of two main locations, one that is provided by a Museum several times a year and one that is provided by the City several times a year. In short, we tend to rely on the generosity and support of our partners for space for public events, which limits the frequency and spontaneity of our organized public events. Note that I did not count our frequent local “pop-up sidewalk” observing events that happen in Ottawa as those are organized by an excellent active informal astronomy group, not RASC itself, even though most of the people sharing their scopes with the public are members of both the informal group and RASC.
Nevertheless, the offerings of some of the other Centres are extremely impressive. In the future, perhaps one of them could compile a “year in the life” summary of all their events for sharing with other Centres.
Q4. Did you do any theme nights?
- 15 responses
- No special themes — the stars are enough [4 = 26.7%]
- Spotlight on the Moon [6 = 40%]
- Spotlight on a particular planet [4 = 26.7%]
- Solar viewing [8 = 53.3%]
- Conjunction night [1 = 6.7%]
- Messier marathon [2 = 13.3%]
- Partnering with other non-RASC astronomy groups [2 = 13,3%]
- Special “partners-only” night for official partners for the Centre [2 = 13.3%]
- Partnering with a company or organization for a “special night” (Boy or Girl Scouts, a business, etc.) [7 = 46.7%]
- Various observing categories or special targets or certificate programs [2 = 13.3%]
- Special outings to other regions, cities, much darker sites [6 = 40%]
- Demo nights for technology or Introduction to Astrophotography [3 = 20%]
- Newbie nights (help them see different types of scopes) [2 = 13.3%]
- Kids nights [0 = 0%]
- Spooky Nights for Halloween [1 = 6.7%]
- Additional events included solar transits, meteor showers, family nights, Milky Way
Every time I think of “things we could do differently”, and look at adapting lessons learned from other types of service organizations, “theme nights” tend to jump to the fore. Yet what I learn the most from the Centres’ responses is the wide variety of approaches, not the least of which is that “no themes – the stars are enough” remains a strong undercurrent (more than a quarter of the Centres). Obviously, there are pluses and minuses to theme nights…the largest “plus” is that you might spark some extra interest, while the largest “minus” is the extra effort involved. Some of the most popular ones, like the Moon, are easy – with 40% of Centres doing it. Another quarter include a spotlight on a particular planet. Equally, almost half of the Centres do special nights for a company or organization, as does Ottawa, although we tend to count those as “outreach” more than public observing events.
For me, based on what we do in Ottawa, there were still a few surprises. More than half are doing solar viewing, and while we do it too, it is not that frequent. Special outings to other regions or darker sites tend to be ad hoc events in Ottawa, often organized by individual members with each other, rather than formal “Centre” outings. I was expecting a very clear and resounding emphasis on kids nights (particularly when you count partnering with Boy or Girl Scouts). Instead, nobody said they had kids nights. I was hoping to compare the results with the Youth Coordinator’s info, but I had no info to share!
Last, but not least, I was intrigued that one fifth of Centres have done “tech” nights for demonstrating technology or astrophotography. There is interest in Ottawa to add it to a night, but we have not done so yet. We have also not specifically aimed to have a “newbie” night to demonstrate different scopes or specifically to help setup scopes, although we have done some workshop training separately, and it was interesting to see that some Centres have done them.
Q5. How many members of the public (in total) do you estimate attend public observing over the course of the year?
- 15 responses
- No public observing events [0 = 0%]
- 1 to 100 people for the year [0 = 0%]
- 100 to 250 people for the year [0 = 0%]
- 250 to 500 people for the year [3 = 20%]
- 500 to 750 people for the year [1 = 6.7%]
- 750 to 1000 people for the year [2 = 13.3%]
- Over 1000 people [7 = 46.7%]
- Other entries written in included 3-5K, and, wait for it, 21K!
In 2017, the eclipse was huge for us in Ottawa, as it was elsewhere. In 2018, the weather was a beast for having to push from our primary dates to our backup dates. Each time, not surprisingly, our attendance is lower at a backup date than at the primary date. I also must confess that I did not keep very accurate totals from each event, or more accurately, I didn’t record them immediately afterwards to save for a year-end total.
However, regardless of the distribution in the “up to” and “over” 1000 mark, all of us pale in comparison with two Centres, one that estimated 3-5K and another that had approximately 21K for events in 2018. If we had three eclipses in the same year, I’m not sure we could make it to those levels, and I am in absolute awe of the raw totals.
Overall, it gives an overall combined estimate of 33K-37K for the year for the 14 Centres that responded.
Q6. Anything else you want to share about types, frequency, themes or attendance?
- 1 response
- We do scheduled observing sessions once a month at our observatory for groups.
Similar to previous results above.
Q7. Where do you offer public observing?
- 15 responses
- Not offered [0 = 0%]
- Urban / sidewalk astronomy [7 = 46.7%]
- Suburban astronomy (such as slightly darker park, field) [8 = 53.3%]
- Near a science-based organization [6 = 40%]
- At an observatory [7 = 46.7%]
- Dark-sky site [7 = 46.7%]
- Additional responses included city parks, provincial park, own Centre’s observatory, schools and youth clubs after a talk, parking lots, community events, regional rural libraries
These results are relatively similar to last year, although it is not so much about “where” in general but as a pre-cursor in the next few questions as to the infrastructure available in the areas mentioned above. This is an area of some interest to me for Ottawa as we use a rural library parking lot, and there is no infrastructure available to us during the events other than the parking lot itself. It’s a good location for us, but it is sparse in terms of what we offer to the public. Of course, the more flexible the location, the less permanent the infrastructure.
Q8. What types of infrastructure do you have to support public observing events?
- 15 responses
- No infrastructure [1 = 6.7%]
- Washrooms in a building [7 = 46.7%]
- Portable washrooms already on-site [3 = 20%]
- Portable washrooms provided by the Centre [2 = 13.3%]
- Dedicated parking lot [11 = 73.3%]
- Parking controls around how “close” members can park to the viewing area for unloading/loading and at what times [8 = 53.3%]
- Light barriers to block headlights from spilling into the viewing area [3 = 20%]
- Set start / stop times [11 = 73.3%]
- Kiosk or table for information or membership [9 = 60%]
- Formal signage [7 = 46.7%]
- ID badges for all members [5 = 33.3%]
- Strict rules around use of white light (phones), light pens (even for guests), or smoking [5 = 33.3%]
- Event marshals who run the events on-site [7 = 46.7%]
- An additional response thought the question was “stupid” as infrastructure was dependent on the location wherever the events happened to take place
As noted in my comments on the previous question, the last response (suggesting the question is case-by-case for the event) is precisely why the question is asked. Pop-up sidewalk events are certainly case-by-case. Others, who have permanent observatories with on-site washrooms, have available infrastructure for most of their formal events. By contrast, Ottawa has little, and in 2018 we added a portapotty to the viewing location, even though we don’t manage the site and are merely hosts to an event once a month. While I agree that many of the ad hoc events for outreach are case-dependent, the results last year and this year show that most Centres have basic infrastructure of some type at the majority of their events (whether through design or happenstance).
On a separate note, I feel this type of question goes to two aspects simultaneously – “preventative” infrastructure to prevent a negative experience, and “pro-active” infrastructure to help ensure the likelihood of a positive one. For example, for any service organization, two of the most common complaints for public events revolve around parking or washrooms (a third common one, price, doesn’t apply to our free events). And while the amazing stars are a nice positive offering, the parent whose child has a full bladder with no bathroom in sight is likely to have a negative experience for the night. Equally, complicated or confused parking setups for members or guests frequently can lead to another “bad” element for the night. Solving those are, in my view, more preventative, and for washrooms, 12 out of 15 Centres have washrooms available whether in a building, already provided by the site, or provided separately by the Centre for the event. In a separate survey of members in Ottawa, two thirds found it a “bare minimum” to include to ensure we were offering a quality event.
Several of the other elements in the list are enhancements – kiosks, badges, etc. We tend to have very little additional “outreach” infrastructure of this sort for our monthly events, and I was curious how much other Centres did for their events. I also confirmed that half of the Centres had on-site marshals for their events, as Ottawa does.
Q9. What types of support do you provide to people for public observing events?
- 15 responses
- Nothing, no public observing supports [3 = 20%]
- Physically-accessible site (port-a-potty, handicap parking, wheelchair-compatible surface) [4 = 26.7%]
- Accessible scopes (lowered for height for kids or as accommodation) [10 = 66.7%]
- Projections to tablets [2 = 13.3%]
- Existing transit to the location [1 = 6.7%]
- Informal or formal carpooling, rides [0 = 0%]
- Chartered bus to the location [1 = 0%]
- Dedicated newbie zone to help people set up [0 = 0%]
- Other responses included that it was a stupid question, event-dependent, live digital astrophotography
While there are some basic supports provided, the most common one is height access for the scopes, an easy-to-emulate option for other Centres.
Q10. What formal roles were assigned by the Centre for public observing events?
- 15 responses
- Only basic coordination is done [1 = 6.7%]
- Individual members come and setup their scopes [11 = 73.3%]
- Pre-event logistics and recruitment of volunteers, members (single lead) [7 = 46.7%]
- Pre-event media (single lead) [8 = 53.3%]
- Pre-events logistics, recruitment and media are handled by the same person (single lead) [4 = 26.7%]
- On-site marshal to handle logistics (single lead) [3 = 20%]
- On-site outreach to talk to the public or provide specific demonstrations (single lead) [10 = 66.7%]
- Hybrid: All pre-event coordination is done by one person [4 = 26.7%]
- Hybrid: On-site logistics and outreach are handled by the same person [6 = 40.0%]
- Coalitions: Pre-event and on-site are handled by different people each time [3 = 20%]
- Other responses included Open House nights with predetermined presentations, separate volunteer coordinators, public event logistics are spearheaded by a single lead, media contact person and a separate person to do the media interview, public presentations at events are done by a team of 2-4, separate 1-2 people who handle the display, brochures and membership recruitment.
I confess that this was my most coveted question to ask for the year as I’ve been reviewing the way we divide up duties in Ottawa for my own role as “Public Star Party Coordinator”. Ottawa is similar to many of the other Centres’ responses, in that individual members setup their scopes (most Centres), pre-event logistics are a single lead (half the Centres), someone does some pre-event media (half the Centres), etc. Where there is variation is in which Centres have hybrid models and which ones have “single lead” models.
In Ottawa, I have been doing pre-event logistics, recruitment of marshals, and acting as one of the marshals at the event. With 6-8 events per year, with multiple dates for primary scheduling and backup dates for weather, I have been finding it too much for one person. Based on the results, that seems consistent with the other Centres as bigger Centres tend to divide up the work, while smaller ones tend to have it with one person. What I found particularly interesting was that on-site outreach is being done by two-thirds of the Centres as a separate function at the event, while other Centres have it handled by the marshal.
Q11. Anything else you want to share about infrastructure or roles?
- 2 responses
- We work with the park who provides advertising through their site and volunteers for traffic.
- We have 3 meeting groups as well as an event coordinator. Each group has a single lead for logistics, recruitment and media.
Consistent and similar results to above questions.
Q12. What was the most successful thing your Centre did in 2018 for public observing?
- 10 responses
- Astronomy days with local science museum
- Partnered with local planetarium and the city for a STEMS outreach
- Created lit signage for each telescope
- Our joint presentation with another Centre to do a provincial Summer Star Party
- Hosted several thousand people during our normal openings. 1 event hosted 500 people, another event saw 1500 people come through.
- Mars Opposition Sidewalk Astronomy Event
- Ran an outreach program on a clear night!
- Hard to say. Probably the re-opening of observatory to the public and the public programs. We had had increasingly positive collaboration with the local science centre and do about two dozen events a year with them.
- Observatory attendance was over 400, nature centre very well attended, Perseids
- We have always had a robust social media presence advertising our events (Meetup.com – works in some cities with large pre-existing Meetup community, Twitter and Facebook, as well as a widely-visited web site), but one small but successful tweak has been setting up Facebook events and having hosting organization (Park, science centre, etc.) co-host the event online. Surprising number of people use Facebook to ‘plan’ their leisure time.
While there will never be “one best option”, I admit I’m personally intrigued by the STEMS outreach, lit signage, and “co-hosting” events online.
Q13. Do you have any special plans in your Centre for public observing in 2019?
- 13 responses
- Lunar eclipse
- Vests for telescope operators.
- No, we just finished our Centennial Celebrations.
- To continue our involvement with Provincial and local engagements such as Astronomy Day, Canada Day and various civic gatherings.
- Lunar Eclipse in January and Mercury Transit in November
- Any special astronomical events are always coordinated and offered to the public. We have a person that continues to offer live Facebook feeds at least 3 to 4 times a month and has been doing so for the last 2 yrs.
- We also offer 5 star parties every year and countless school and public observing/ education events
- We have for the last two years been offering free workshop courses on anything astronomy including beginner astrophotography sessions and are in the process of offering more of these classes.
- We already had the Lunar eclipse on Jan 20 which saw close to 2000 people come through. We’ll be opening the observatory with its 32″ telescope this September. We’ll be working with a partner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Our planning for other events are in progress as well as Astro Day.
- Mercury Transit on November 11, 2019
- Bi-monthly hosting of “Dark Sky Nights”
- Transit of Mercury
- Monthly events at the same spot
- In collaborative communication with a public service group in the City, who will bring a “Museum of the Moon” in September in support of the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing.
- Fri nights at Observatory, about 4 events at nature centre, 4 community events for solar viewing, Perseid viewing at observatory, trips out of our catchment area to assist other communities
As with the previous question, there is no “one solution fits all”. I am personally intrigued by the vests for telescope operators, the Mercury transit (since it also combines with solar viewing!), live Facebook feeds, beginner AP sessions, and the anniversary of Apollo 11.
Q14. Is there anything else you want to share about public observing in your Centre?
- 7 responses
- We have Spring and fall sessions of open house night every Friday
- Most of our Public Observing Nights are accompanied by an indoor AV presentation on astronomy. Should we have foul weather the public get some astronomy.
- We do a lot of public outreach at our Observatory, schools or camps, and through sidewalk astronomy at local parks.
- We find holding the events at the same spot with a partner works well.
- Happy to chat outreach and share ideas any time. Contact [email removed for public report]
- We have 3 meeting groups, each doing their own public events as well as a coordinator at the observatory for the Perseids. We have had a hard time finding space for Sidewalk Astronomy although with all the other events, our volunteers are pretty well stretched to their limit. Last year we lost at least 6 weeks due to smoke from forest fires. Hopefully this won’t become an annual occurrence.
- We have had many successful years of many public outreach sessions (since 2009) and what seemed like a daunting task to host so many events in a year now seems commonplace. There are still people who worry about volunteer burnout but this worry appears to be overblown when the totality of volunteers is considered, but may apply to individuals.
As much as I am grateful for all the comments through-out the entire survey, and happy to share it back to the other Centres in case it can help with their own thinking, it is the free-form open-ended questions at the end that help me get a full flavor for some of the approaches. And this final set of responses is indicative of the quality of responses to share – dealing with volunteer burnout, challenges with the weather or other factors, and the full range of offerings from weekly open houses at observatories and indoor A/V presentations to sidewalk astronomy events. Thank you to everyone for sharing their views.
In conclusion, while I try to take the position of RASC Ottawa Public Star Party Coordinator seriously enough to do these surveys and look at the results, I am reminded in the corresponding survey I do of just the Ottawa members of “what should we offer” there is still a strong counter point to my organizing:
The stars are enough, don’t overthink it.