The Star Party of the Future . . . Generations

By Lisa M. Wieland, Wabash Valley Astronomical Society

(This article appeared in the March 2009 edition of the Astronomical League's "Reflector" magazine.  The text below is the orignal, before editing by the Reflector editor, but with slight editing by John Mahony.  Pictures are at the bottom.  A pdf file of the Sky Trekker booklet is here).

Star Parties: attended in the summer or fall, planned in the winter or spring. All parties are similar, but ours, the Indiana Family Star Party (IFSP), a part of the Astronomical League's Great Lakes Region Conference, is different. If you're putting together a star party of any length from one night to a whole week, and you're looking for a new angle for it, take a look at our easily adaptable program! It puts the next generation of astronomers first and combats the “graying” of the hobby!

The Place:

The IFSP is held at the Prairie Grass Observatory (PGO) at Camp Cullom, a non-profit youth/scout camp located just northwest of Frankfort in Clinton County, Indiana. PGO has four telescopes that serve as the base of the facility: a 28” Dobsonian, a 16” Newtonian, a 16” Schmidt-Cassegrain, and a 7” apochromatic refractor. There is also a pair of giant 25/40 X 100 binoculars, and both hydrogen-alpha white light filters for solar observing through the telescopes. The main campground buildings are the air-conditioned Nature Center, which houses the restrooms and a small museum, and the Lodge, which houses on-site showers. Camp Cullom hosts approximately 160 sites for campers.

The Problem:

Our event is hosted by volunteers from three different astronomy clubs from the surrounding region: the Lafayette-based Wabash Valley Astronomical Society (WVAS) , the Indianapolis-based Indiana Astronomical Society (IAS), and the Muncie-based Muncie Astronomy Club (MAC). For five years our planning committee struggled to get the star party established and to fulfill the vision of IFSP and PGO founder Russ Kaspar. Russ, a trained youth leader for the Boy Scouts, envisioned a star party with a “family-first” focus. Each year at the party, an introductory astronomy presentation was given, green lasers were permitted (as teaching tools), and sharing views through telescopes was encouraged so kids might enjoy looking at some deep space objects in the sky. Additional activities for kids included an AL-sponsored youth astroquiz and the amenities of the camp: the modern playground and picnic shelter, the mapped hiking trails, a prairie grass habitat tour, the Nature Center museum and bird-watching area, and all night movies with free popcorn and hot chocolate (and coffee too, for adults.) Yet, with all this, kids didn't really seem engaged with the party and something seemed to be missing.

Russ wondered how we could take our star party to the “next level.” Reflecting on how my own daughter seemed to enjoy observing more if she could hold the green laser and use her own binoculars, I realized that we needed something more hands-on and more directly aimed at kids, so I decided to boost our kids' activities by designing an observing program just for them.

The Plan:

I felt that a program with a list of objects to find and certificates for achievement—sort of like a Messier Marathon—might be a fun star party activity, but, which objects and how many of them should I have them find? I knew that the Astronomical League had many different observing programs—even some aimed at young astronomers. Even though my own daughter was 13 and officially too old for the AL's “Sky Puppies” program (their cut-off age is 11), I went ahead and ordered a copy of their program booklet just to get some guidance.

The AL's program involved finding 15 International Astronomical Union constellations and five deep space objects (with binoculars), and sketching a solar system object from a given list—all over a period of time of at least a year. Kids at our party would have just one or two nights! I needed to seriously pare down the requirements!

I recruited fellow WVAS club member (and Secretary) Marilyn Sameh, who dubbed our program “Sky Trekker.” Together we arrived at the idea of six constellations being a good number for kids to attempt in one or two nights—but which six? Ursa Major seemed the natural place to start and I felt that concentrating on three constellations in the north and three in the south would be ideal, especially since there is so much to see in the Sagittarius-Scorpius region of the sky. I tried to choose constellations that had a wide variety of deep space objects and originally chose Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Draco in the north, and Ophiuchus, Sagittarius, and Scorpius in the south. A prototype booklet was presented to the planning committee at our June meeting; they immediately set about making much needed revisions and suggestions to put our program on the right track.

First of all, the program would be split into two levels: Sky Trekker I for absolute beginners who wanted to focus their efforts entirely on constellation identification, and Sky Trekker II for kids who wanted to try telescopes and binoculars. Next, it was decided that strict adherence to the IAU constellations wasn't necessary: we would accept some common asterisms as being good enough, e.g., the Big Dipper in Ursa Major would be sufficient, as would “the teapot” in Sagittarius. WVAS President George Wyncott suggested replacing dim Draco and Ophiuchus with bright Cassiopeia and Cygnus, forming a link between the northern and southern skies. John Mahony (WVAS) revamped my deep space objects list, attempting to make it more small-telescope and binocular friendly. Alan East (also WVAS) advised me on the double-stars list. Alison Hind (MAC) suggested that a few named bright stars from the chosen constellations be added to the requirements for both, so this was done too.

Some detail issues arose:

The final booklet contained kid-friendly definitions of constellations, asterisms, globular and open star clusters, nebulae (planetary, reflection, emission, absorption and supernova remnants), double stars (binary and optical doubles) and galaxies (spirals, ellipticals, and irregulars). It also had star map practice pages (generated with E. C. Downey's XEphem software) of Ursa Minor and several flanking polar constellations, Cygnus and the constellations in its immediate vicinity, and Sagittarius and Scorpius with Scutum, Libra, and decent dollops of Ophiuchus and Serpens thrown in—all with and without constellation lines drawn in: the lines would be shown on one page, then after turning that page, a map of the same region would appear without the lines so kids could practice looking for the constellations during the day.

The Sky Trekker I checklist included the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Sagittarius “teapot”, and Scorpius, as well as Polaris, Deneb, and Antares. The Sky Trekker II naked-eye checklist included these same constellations and stars, plus Vega, Altair, and the Summer Triangle. Sky Trekker II Deep Space categories included Globular Clusters (M3, M5, M13, M15, and M22), Open Clusters (M6&7, M11, M23, M25, NGC 869 & 884, and M52), Double Stars (Albireo; θ Cygni; Alcor & Mizar; δ, ε, and ζ Lyrae; 15 Aquilae; and κ Herculis), Nebulae (M8, M17, M20, and M27), and Galaxies (M31, M51, M101, and the Milky Way, which was included in case the seeing wasn't very good). “Trekker II” kids needed to find only three of these, each from a different category. A page was also provided for Level II kids to sketch a solar system object of their choice from a given list of three: Jupiter and as many of its four Galilean moons as could be seen, the young moon of August 2, 2008, or sunspots (if there were any). The inside back cover provided further definitions of terms found in the booklet: light-year, solar mass, galactic plane, magnitude, atoms, hydrogen, helium, and light speed. The Greek alphabet was also listed, as were the abbreviations for most of the constellations in the summer sky.

To further augment the program, we wanted to include a free planisphere to every kid who signed up. We were running an educational effort here and this way, even if a child didn't find all of the constellations during the party, s/he could take home a tool that would help her or him later at home. We managed to find inexpensively priced classroom supply planispheres (in bulk) to make this happen.

Every kid who completed the program received a Sky Trekker certificate and pin, and, as a further incentive, an ice cream treat. Ice cream turned out to be a powerful motivator for encouraging kids to sign up!

To engage younger kids in the party, and/or siblings uninterested in joining the Sky Trekker program, Marilyn and I decided to host an astrocraft. Marilyn researched many astronomy-related craft projects for me and we finally chose a “make your own planet Saturn” craft, which involved cutting 2” Styrofoam balls in half, gluing the halves to either side of a CD, and then decorating the resulting ringed planet with colorful glitter glues. In addition to the craft, we also added to the outdoor activities list: Camp Ranger, Hoppy Bray (also a trained youth leader), set up the camp volleyball court for us, and, since late July in the midwest tends to be sultry, we set up a misty-type sprinkler as a way for kids to cool off. Our plan was now complete!

The Party:

When the party was originally planned, the Sky Trekker program was given a piece of camp real estate on the north side of the Nature Center separate from the main observing field. We had figured on kids gathering here to learn and be tested on their constellations, and we had thought level II kids could bring their small telescopes and binoculars here to take their tests as well. However, with the changes made to the Trekker II program and the way it would now work, I knew as the party began that I didn't have enough judges. I had only myself, Marilyn, and Thad Hatchett of IAS and while three people could have probably coped with observers who were all in one area, more people would be needed if judges had to travel out to various campsites. Like most astronomy clubs, all three host societies had only a small core of active members to recruit from and just about everyone I could tap from every club already had an assigned star party task. I was fortunate that Terry Rhoades of MAC agreed to be a judge, and even more fortunate that a friend and former WVAS club member, Mike Abell (now in Ohio) got on board as well. I was pleasantly surprised when one party attendee majoring in education, Patrick Craig, asked if he could get involved in the program; he was given the job right away!

The first night, we had only 12 kids sign up. Some of those ended up pulling out because they didn't meet the age requirements, and some didn't show up because of the lateness of the hour for the program (true darkness didn't set in until about 10:30 p.m.).

After listening to Thad's Beginning Astronomy presentation, the kids eagerly gathered on the lawn to take green lasers in hand to learn their constellations and be tested. In the end, eight completed the first night, only three of which were Trekker IIs.

On Saturday afternoon at 2:00 p.m., Marilyn and I ran the astrocraft at the Lodge. Only about six or seven kids participated in this, but they had a good time and best of all, as they sat and painted and shared glue bottles, they started talking to one another and making friends. They developed some elaborate game based on Greek mythology that they ran to the playground to start playing the minute they got done with their planets. It was great to see these new friendships starting up between kids at the star party!

By Saturday night we had 22 kids signed up for the Sky Trekker program—all at level I! I was worried about this number, especially since I was losing a judge—Marilyn could not be there this night. To take her place, I recruited Micah Larson, a 14-year-old scout and avid observer who had just qualified for his Sky Trekker II certificate the previous night! He accepted this promotion, and everything went well on our second night. I even set up my small Edmund Astroscan reflector for kids to try out after the exams. Only one or two took advantage of this opportunity, but that's largely because I didn't have time to staff my telescope until all Trekker exams were over.

Our goal was for everyone who signed up to have some fun, pass the program, and get their rewards. By the end of Saturday night's session, 15 of the 22 kids who signed up had completed the program, and one who'd signed up Friday night completed second-day rather than same-day, for a total of 16. All were level I. Overall 34 kids signed up for the program and 24 completed (3 level II; 21 level I). One of those who did not complete became ill and left the camp; his siblings left with him. Some did not complete, again, because of the lateness of the hour. All of those who participated had a great time.

The most impressive and inspiring part of these educational observing sessions was the interaction between parents and their kids. I had sort of expected parents at the party to shuttle the kids over to the Sky Trekker program for the leaders and judges to entertain for a while, but that's not at all what happened! Parents attended the sessions with their kids, some just as interested in learning as their kids, some very sky-savvy in their own right and helping their own kids and others. Green lasers were borrowed and passed around, constellations and stars were learned, and everywhere—in a tremendous collaborative effort—people were helping each other get to know the sky.

The adult portion of the star party included presentations on topics such as Globular Clusters in the Milky Way, Nuclear Fusion research, Polishing the Aspherical segments of the European Southern Observatory's Extremely Large Telescope, Astronomy at the Rose Hulman Institute and Oakley Southern Sky Observatory, and Asteroid Hunting. The Sky Trekker Program was like a smaller star party for kids and families, within the regular star party, that really became the heart and soul of our event.

Planning your 2009 star party? Don't forget the kids! Emphasizing family at a star party is a good thing. It gets the kids away from Game-Boys and TV sets for a while, and puts them back in touch with their parents, nature and the sky. It brings the next generation of observers and scientists up into astronomy, preserving this great hobby for years to come.

Julia, Alex, and Rachel Schiffer display their completed astrocrafts.
Photo by Jeff Wieland

All Sky Trekker Materials: Booklets (inside and out), Planisphere, Pins, and Certificate.
Photo by Jeff Wieland

Kids study their Sky Trekker booklets during the day.
Photo by Jarad Schiffer

Taxiing around the camp in the haywagon.
Photo by Edmund Harfmann

Solar viewing during the day.
Photo by Edmund Harfmann

Rachel Schiffer and her dad's 14.5” Portaball Reflector.
Photo by Jarad Schiffer

Sky Trekker Level I Awards Presentation.
L-R:  Neena VanCoppenolle, Deedee Wieland, Zoee Stephan (behind presenter), Zoe Krauskopf, Nathan Hatchett.
Photo by Edmund Harfmann

Sky Trekker Level II Awards Presentation.
L-R:  Micah Larson, Teresa Krauskopf, Andrew Sanqunetti.
Photo by Edmund Harfmann